This is Your Place in the Universe: The Tiniest of Kings and Queens


Source: NASA

Source: NASA

It’s popular on social media, notably Twitter and Facebook, to post videos that show how infinitesimally small the earth is when compared to objects inside our universe. They then draw some conclusion of, “See how insignificant we are?” or “So when your problems seem overwhelming, just look at how big the universe is and realize how small your problems are.” Such messages, I guess, are suppose to be inspiring, but ultimately they’re quite nihilistic. It’s like one of those Lisa Frank paintings with nihilistic messages:

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It looks kind, cuddly, and just pukes sentimentality, but the message is pretty dark. And that’s how these videos on the universe are; yes, we’re small, we’re tiny compared to other physical objects in the universe, but does that really mean our problems are insignificant? Just say, “Cry into the night sky, but understand that your sound goes into a void that will not answer back and will not hear you.” It’s atheistic existentialism without the acknowledgement of angst or absurdity, it’s optimistic nihilism, which is to say it’s neither optimistic nor nihilist, but just a logical contradiction.

How non sequitur is it to say, “But the universe is vast and large and we are insignificant” when someone comes to you with a problem? More importantly, why would the size of the earth play into our significance? While the magnitude of a problem experiences some subjectivity – to a three year old, dropping an ice cream cone is an act of supreme evil – it doesn’t mean our problems or even our lives are insignificant. We can’t look at the crisis in the Middle East, the number of orphans, widows, and rampant genocide, we can’t look at the rapes, the theft, the wanton loss of life and go, “Yeah, but VY Canis Majoris is 5,000 light years from earth and dwarfs our own sun! So really, how big can our problems be?” That response is properly received as cold and callous, and that’s because it is, because human lives are significant regardless of their size.

See, while VY Canis Majoris might dwarf our sun, or while the whole of North America might look like a smudge when compared to the size of Jupiter, human lives dwarf absolutely everything else in this universe, including the universe itself. We are the kings and queens of creation, placed as stewards over all that we observe, even if what we observe is bigger than ourselves. Much to the chagrin of atheists or the non-religious, though evolved we are still made in the image of God. And since God is infinite, within that image there is infinity, and infinity shall always remain greater than the finite. And the universe, no matter how vast it is, is still finite. The problems we face, the evil we cause, the good we enjoy, the love we create, and every aspect of our existential lives are not insignificant or small just because the universe is large; these elements echo in eternity and will surpass even the universe itself.

And for those who aren’t religious or are atheists and prefer not to believe that we are in God’s image, I can respect that, but I can’t respect the devaluation of human life. For even the atheist existentialists would embrace the absurdity of treating human life with dignity because, after all, it’s the only intelligent form of life of which we know As small as we are, our intelligence makes us of far greater value than some distant star of mass quantities.

So yes, in terms of physical limitations humans are insignificant. We’re nothing compared to other animals on this planet, if we’re only looking to physicality. But if we’re looking to more, if we’re looking to the intangible, immaterial aspect of our existence (for love, knowledge, and the like cannot be measured and though immaterial, are a vital part of our existence and are what makes us human), then nothing in the observable universe comes close to our own significance.

 

Existence as an Act of Love


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Act I

Once I wallowed in the darkness of the void

That darkness darker than the night

Ever searching, ever groping, ever longing

My hands clutching shadows that slipped through my fingers.

Lost in a maze without meaning, without purpose, without destination

I wandered in a dry and waterless land

My soul aching for something or someone to give me hope

An experience to justify this pitiful existence.

How I yearned to escape the absurdity

I clung to my individuality, my uniqueness, but in vain

Having rejected You I acknowledged that all was One – ever turning, all encompassing

And within this Monolith “I” was an illusion.

How I longed to communicate – to understand and to be understood

How I longed to reciprocate – to love and to be loved

How I longed to impose my will – to create and to be created

But how could I escape the Monolith?

Mindless forces, endlessly indifferent, from the dawn of time

Blindly marching on, from everlasting to everlasting

Laws of nature too powerful to escape

Leading me, guiding me, shaping me, informing me, fating me.

I was but a cog in the wheel

One piece of the machine

And even this wasn’t real

For everything was One and “I” was an aberration, a twisted trick of nature.

My thoughts were merely a chimera

Every doubt, every fear, every belief, every feeling, every passion was an inevitability

A destiny set in stone by the cold, irrational, unconscious, laws of physics and biology

Since the dawn of time.

Reason and rationality became but a farce

I groped aimlessly in the night

For “I” was but the dust in a star

Like grass, my puny body would deteriorate and die

My atoms scattered to and fro . . .


 

Intermission 

And so it was that I sank into the pit of despair and hopelessness

Where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

 


Act II

But You, my Beloved, drew near in my distress

You who made blind eyes see, shattered through the night

Piercing the darkness with your unapproachable light

Illuminating my mind and reviving my heart of stone!

Through You, O Lord, we may see existence as an act of love

Ultimate reality as an intimacy shared between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit

The eternal wellspring of personality, communication, and love

The perfect communion of three distinct personalities sharing one

nature, energy, and will.

For in You, O God, is perfect community, true intimacy, and pure holiness

It was out of this  love that You gave birth to the Universe

Speaking into existence something other – yet still reflecting Your incomparable beauty

A supreme act of Self-Giving.

And You imprinted Your image and likeness upon it

Creating other distinct personalities capable of communication and love

That they, too, though finite and limited, might share in the wonder of your eternal glory

and experience the delight of Your All-Holy Spirit

Even now You lovingly maintain the order and harmony of the Universe

Fixing the laws of nature, those models of elegance and simplicity

Maintaining regularity – the ebb and flow of matter and energy

That we may live and move and have our being.

Ever communicating Your love!

Ever revealing Your heart!

Ever beckoning us to abide!

That we may join the everlasting and harmonious community of the Blessed and most Holy Trinity

Come let us abide in You and You in us!  Amen.

The Myth of Consciousness . . .


Consciousness Explained.  By Daniel C. Dennett.  Boston, MA:  Little, Brown and Company, 1991.  511 pages.

It is, by now, common knowledge that it is far easier to explain something which ultimately does not need to be explained.  Take, for example, the birth of Pegasus.  If you were to ask me to explain how it is that Pegasus was begotten from the blood spilling out of Medusa’s decapitated head, I should simply respond, “Pegasus and Medusa do not exist.  What is there to explain?  Perhaps, what you really want is a historical account of how this mythological tale came to be.”  One does not need to explain how a creature like Pegasus, who only seems to exist (i.e., whose existence is grounded in our imagination), is begotten from the blood of a dead goddess.  Likewise, if we are to accept Dr. Dennett’s stance, one does not need to explain consciousness—at least, not in the traditional sense.  For, according to his view, consciousness only seems to exist; it is mythology.  What we really want, when exploring the nature of conscious mental states, is a scientific, third person, account of how the notion of consciousness arises.  It is in this sense that consciousness is explained (or, perhaps, more fairly, explained away) in his book.

Setting the Stage

Dr. Dennett sets the stage by introducing the means by which he intends to “demystify” the notion of consciousness.  His first move is to reject Cartesian Dualism as a matter of principle.  It will strike some readers odd that, save for a couple of humorous comic strips and a handful of vague comments regarding the, all too cliché, problem of interaction, he seems entirely uncompelled to provide rigorous argumentation against the Cartesian view.  Most, however, will be sympathetic to the fact that it is far more economical in a lengthy work of philosophy to simply pronounce, ex cathedra, the death of an opposing point of view.  Such an approach, I might point out, makes the task of promoting one’s own view far easier.  To be fair, though, it must be conceded that Dr. Dennett makes several strong assertions about why we should ignore dualistic theories of the mind.  He declares that dualism is both unscientific and mysterious.  As he states:

[The] fundamentally antiscientific stance of dualism is, to my mind, its most disqualifying feature, and is the reason why in this book I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs.  It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up (37).

Rather than wallow in mystery (and, really, who wants to wallow?), Dr. Dennett proposes a more sensible way—materialism.  But not just any form of materialism, a materialism that faces the problem of consciousness realistically; without ignoring the key features of conscious mental states which render them so difficult to account for.  The bulk of his book, therefore, is spent attempting to provide a broad materialistic framework by which we might account for all of the features of consciousness.

From this standpoint, his book is essentially a conglomeration of various materialist theories on human cognition, neurology, psychology, physics, chemistry, and biological evolution pulled together to provide a cumulative case against those who might view consciousness as being at odds with a materialist ontology.  Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that his real goal is to undercut traditional assumptions about the nature of consciousness (ie., the ones that need to be explained), and thereby remove the obstacles facing empirical scientific approaches.  He achieves this by redefining or calling into question these assumptions—such notions as a “center of consciousness,” intentionality, identity over time, and qualia—which continue to mystify scientists.

The Death of Qualia

One key feature of conscious mental states that resists any and all materialistic explanations is what philosophers call qualia.  Material things can be described, almost exhaustively, from an objective or third person stance.  For instance, I can examine and explain nearly everything there is to know about a rock—its mass, weight, location, geological history, chemical makeup, etc.—without invoking any subjective or first person properties.  Conscious mental states, in contrast, seem to possess a quality that rocks, and all other material objects, lack.  As Dr. Dennett explains:

Don’t our internal discriminative states also have some special “intrinsic” properties, the subjective, private, ineffable, properties that constitute the way things look to us (sound to us, smell to us, etc.)?  Those additional properties would be the qualia (373).

Recognizing that subjective experience poses a serious problem to his materialist proclivities, Dr. Dennett spends a considerable amount of time on the issue.  I will highlight several of the more innovative approaches he utilizes to “disqualify” qualia as being a serious obstacle to materialism.

First, he wisely chooses not to quote any philosopher who makes a case that qualia is: (a) a legitimate property of consciousness and (b) a serious challenge to materialism.  This is a very smart move, because it frees him from having to deal, directly, with their arguments (an understandable choice to make, considering the book is already 511 pages).  Instead of engaging the literature on the subject, Dr. Dennett utilizes a fictional character named Otto (a.k.a., the Straw Man) to represent the opposing side.  He then proceeds to deconstruct the problem of qualia as it is espoused by Otto.  I will deal with this in greater detail in a moment.

The second approach Dr. Dennett uses, which proves to be very effective, is what philosophers call equivocation—the ambiguous use of a key term in an argument.  At the beginning of chapter twelve, Dr. Dennett correctly identifies qualia as being a “subjective, private, ineffable,” property that constitutes, “the way things look to us (sound to us, smell to us, etc.)” (373).  A couple of pages latter we see a subtle shift in his use of the term:

When Otto, in chapter 11, judged that there seemed to be a glowing pinkish ring, what was the content of his judgment?  If, as I have insisted, his judgment wasn’t about a quale, a property of a “phenomenal” seem-ing-ring (made out of figment), just what was it about?  What property did he find himself tempted to attribute (falsely) to something out in the world (375, emphasis mine)?

Note how seamlessly he shifts from qualia being an internal subjective property to an external property we attribute to something out in the world.  Such sophisticated sophistry is a rare gem.

Following this subtle shift in the meaning of the term, Dr. Dennett spends multiple pages discussing color and providing a very lively and entertaining third person scientific account of how various organisms perceive reflective light surfaces.  He then draws the following conclusion:

What property does Otto judge something to have when he judges it to be pink?  The property he calls pink.  And what property is that?  It’s hard to say, but this should not embarrass us, because we can say why it’s hard to say.  The best we can do, practically, when asked what surface properties we detect with color vision, is to say, uninformatively, that we detect the properties we detect.  If someone wants a more informative story about those properties, there is a large and rather incompressible literature in biology, neuroscience, and psychophysics to consult.  And Otto can’t say anything more about the property he calls pink by saying “It’s this!” (taking himself to be pointing “inside” at a private, phenomenal property of his experience).  All that move accomplishes (at best) is to point to his own idiosyncratic color-discrimination state . . . but not to any quale that is exuded by it, or worn by it, or rendered by it, when it does its work.  There are no such things (382-383).

If this passage leaves you feeling confused, you are not alone.  At first, Dr. Dennett seems to be discussing the “property of pink” and the “surface properties we detect with color vision” (i.e., external, third person properties); then, without warning, he declares the death of qualia.  It is impossible to appreciate Dr. Dennett’s argument because he does not make one, but I submit that we can admire this paragraph for what it is: a powerful form or rhetoric.

This leads us to the third approach Dr. Dennett utilizes to disqualify qualia: begging the question.  It should be noted that this approach is perhaps one of his greatest strengths.  Rather than disprove the existence of qualia (or, for that matter, any of the key features of consciousness) he simply assumes materialism is true.  With this assumption in place, it is all too easy to explain qualia away.  Consider, for example, how he handles the problem of inverted qualia.  Dr. Dennett starts with the assumption that materialism is true and that our subjective qualitative experiences are simply reducible to our “reactive dispositions” (392).  He then utilizes these assumptions to undercut the thought experiments propounded by those who consider inverted qualia a serious challenge to materialism.  For example, his response to one thought experiment which demonstrates that, even with perfect technology, “no intersubjective comparison of qualia would be possible,” is merely to point out that it, “provides support, however, for the shockingly “verificationist” or “positivistic” view that the very idea of inverted qualia is nonsense–and hence that the very idea of qualia is nonsense” (390).

It seems that by placing quotation marks around the terms verificationism and positivism, Dr. Dennett hopes to downplay the self-contradictory nature of both views.  Unfortunately, sarcasm and well placed quotation marks do not negate the fact that verificationsim and logical positivism are dead-end’s which have been abandoned by serious philosophers for years.  The reason being that both views promote a hopelessly limited epistemology.  Dr. Dennett, however, seems undeterred by these problems because, after all, in his view materialism is true; and, if materialism is true, there must be some empirical (i.e., materialistic) way to verify the existence of qualia (outside of the fact that we all have subjective qualitative experiences).  Naturally, if we accept this, our inability to compare our subjective experiences through some sort of third person objective standpoint leads to the conclusion that qualia is nonsense.

The process of question begging demonstrated above is utilized repeatedly, and with great rhetorical flare, throughout the chapter.  Consider Dr. Dennett’s response to Frank Jackson’s much debated thought experiment: Monochromatic Mary.  The point of the experiment is to demonstrate that Mary, a super intelligent color scientist who has never personally experienced color, learns something knew upon her release from her monochromatic prison.  Although she has learned everything there is to know about physical third person explanations of reflective light surfaces, human vision, neurology, and biology, she learns something knew upon personally experiencing a red rose for the first time.  This “something new” is of course qualia–her subjective qualitative experience of the outside world.

His response to the problem this story generates for materialism is merely to assert the truth of materialism.  He does this by telling his own version of Mary’s first color experience:

 And so, one day, Mary’s captors decided it was time for her to see colors.  As a trick, they prepared a bright blue banana to present as her first color experience ever.  Mary took one look at it and said “Hey!  You tried to trick me!  Bananas are yellow, but this one is blue!”  Her captors were dumfounded.  How did she do it?  “Simple,” she replied.  “You have to remember that I know everything–absolutely everything–that could ever be known about the physical causes and effects of color vision.  So of course before you brought the banana in, I had already written down, in exquisite detail, exactly what physical impression a yellow object or a blue object . . . would make on my nervous system.  So I already knew exactly what thoughts I would have (because, after all, the “mere disposition” to think about this or that is not one of your famous qualia, is it?).  I was not in the slightest surprised by my experience of blue . . . (399-400).

Note how his story simply assumes the non-existence of qualia–the very thing in question.  Admittedly, this method works very well to Dr. Dennett’s advantage.  Why argue for your position when you can simply assume it to be true?

Concluding Thoughts

The hard problem of consciousness, as it has been called by David Chalmers,  is exactly the type of problem one would expect to be solved in a book entitled Consciousness Explained;  ironically, quite the opposite is true.  It is, rather, the hard problem of consciousness which is explained away by Dr. Dennett.  The most significant features of consciousness, the one’s that incessantly resist materialistic explanation, are simply dismissed as being some sort of illusion.  Qualia, intentionality, and other irreducible features of consciousness are no different from mythology in his view.  Harking back to the analogy I presented in the introduction:  the story of Pegasus and Medusa is exciting, and even thought provoking, but at the end of the day it is not based on reality.  Likewise, for Dr. Dennett, our subjective inner qualitative experiences are a nice story but do not correspond to reality.  Reality, if we accept his understanding, is anything explainable in terms of evolutionary biology, neurology, cognitive science, and the overarching laws of physics; period.

As disconcerting as this may be, it is not quite as disconcerting as the means by which Dr. Dennett arrives at his conclusions.  Arguments against dualism (in any way shape or form) are completely absent from the text.  Materialism is, thus, taken for granted and consistently used as a defeater for any feature of consciousness that poses a challenge for materialism.  A great deal of time is spent providing third person scientific accounts of physical processes without directly addressing the actual arguments of those who would object to Dr. Dennett’s materialism.  For these reasons his book should not be considered a serious work of philosophy.  It should, however, be praised for its good humor and readability.  If anything, it is a shining modern example of sophistry and should be read diligently by anyone who seeks to learn how to make the weaker position seem strong.

Searching for My Moment or Rebecca Black and the Vanity of Western Culture


If you haven’t heard already, Rebecca Black is “about to blow up” and she wants everybody to know about it.  All of you “haters” out there who said, “see you later,” are, in fact, total losers and she wants you to bemoan the fact that she is doing things you never dreamed of.  What’s the secret to her success?  As she explains it: she just “trusted herself” and forgot everyone else, and, as a result, she is now having her moment . . .

The egotistical lyrics of overnight sensation Rebecca Black’s new song, My Moment, are simply a reflection of the vanity of Western culture and the yearnings of a superficial generation.  Now, more than ever, our youth desire to have “their moment”–to be famous, to be glamorous, to be sexy, to be the locus of everyone’s attention–and they will stop at nothing until they do.   In fact, today’s youth feel that their life is somehow incomplete or unimportant without some sort of material or “social” success.

This self-centered mindset is a direct outgrowth of our tendency to teach children that maintaining a high level of self-esteem is the primary goal of life.  Unsurprisingly, our children now believe that they are, in fact, the center of the universe and will stop at nothing to attain life experiences which reinforce this. Our obsession with self-esteem, coupled with the rampant materialism pervasive in our culture, has given rise to a generation of narcissistic hedonists whose sole purpose in life is to have “their moment.”  “Surely I will be happy with myself,” it is believed, “ if I had a voice like her or a sexy body like him or an expensive new car or money or power or success . . . if I could just have my moment!”

The question is, what happens if you never have “your moment?”  What happens if you never become the next American Idol, or make music videos, or attend parties with famous celebrities?  Do these things really have anything substantial to do with your value or worth as a person?

What if Rebecca Black had never been invited to perform her song Friday on the Today Show?  What if her music video had been deleted from youtube?  What if she never had “her moment?”  Would she then have no value or worth as a person?  Would she have no purpose or shot at true happiness?  Would the “haters” have won?  It is when we ask these questions that we begin to see the utter futility in attaching all of our value and worth to finite things.

The fact of the matter is, the things of this world are transitory; they do not last forever.  Fame is fleeting, beauty eventually fades, pleasure lasts only for a season, we grow old, we die . . . Besides, there are only a few of us who will ever experience a “moment” like Rebecca Black anyways–I am quite certain that I will never  know what it is like to dance in a music video or attend a celebrity ball.  Does this mean my life is empty?  Does this mean I have no value as a person?  Does this mean my existence is totally meaningless?

The answer, of course, is a resounding “No!”  Our value and worth, as human beings, is rooted in the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God; and nothing in life will ever change this amazing fact about our nature.  No level of material success, or lack thereof, will ever add to or diminish the fact that we are all intrinsically valuable and unfathomably loved by our Creator.  No amount of fame or fortune could possibly outshine the deep, infinite, and self-sacrificing love demonstrated by our Creator who became incarnate for us and suffered and died for us.  No amount of power or fame or sex appeal will ever work as a substitute for the relationship with God that we all yearn for.

When all is said and done, the only “moment” that we truly need or which will bring us eternal satisfaction is the moment we recognize that we need Jesus.

Damascene Cosmology – Does the Damascene Cosmological argument prove the Christian God is the only God?


Some might be quick to point out that the Damascene Cosmological argument doesn’t necessarily prove the Christian God. They would say that I have wasted my time in trying to prove my faith because all I have proven is that “a god” exists, but this doesn’t give me specific details as to what type of God he (or she, or it) might be. Shockingly enough, I have run into quite a few atheists who feel that this is an adequate reply to any cosmological argument. “Well you haven’t proven the Christian God exists” they say as they smile, sit back, and fold their arms.

I would tend to agree with the atheists on this point; the Damascene Cosmological argument does not prove the existence of the Christian God. However, I believe that Christians are justified in using the Damascene argument for the following reasons: Continue reading

Damascene Cosmology – Third Premise: “Therefore, since all things are mutable and require a creator, that creator is God”


It is at this point that many readers will squirm, but such a reaction is simply not justified when considering the previous two premises. Though the idea of admitting the existence of God may not be palatable to certain readers, if they desire to base their beliefs off what is known rather than what stands in contradiction to reality, they must abandon naturalism and admit that God is the creator of the universe.

The conclusion is true because it logically follows from the premises and both premises are true. To review on why the conclusion is true:

1)   All things are either mutable (movable and changeable) or immutable (immovable and unchangeable)

2)   If something is movable then it requires a creator because an infinite regress is impossible

3)   An infinite regress is impossible because it would never allow events to come about

4)   Immutable objects are above an infinite regress because they do not move and therefore cannot be measured by time

5)   Everything we experience is mutable, therefore requiring a creator

6)   By definition, the creator must be God (due to what is needed in order to be immutable) Continue reading