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How Catholics Understand the Bible

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Filed under The Bible

Bible Reading

NOTE: Over the past several months, we've had lots of combox discussion about how Catholics read and interpret the Bible. To help us all make sense of this question, we're beginning a multi-part series on the topic. Once a week, for the next several weeks, Mark Shea will unpack how Catholics authentically read the Bible. Today he offers a general introduction, next week he'll outline three specific guidelines, and the following week he'll begin covering the three main spiritual senses (or lenses) through which Catholic interpret the Bible—allegorical, moral, and anagogical.


 
Some atheists, like Bill Maher, creator of the documentary "Religulous", imagine that people who take the Bible seriously must read it literalistically. However, there is a difference between literalistic interpretation—which is the habit of all Fundamentalists—and the literal sense of Scripture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the literal sense this way:

"The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: 'All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal'." (CCC, 116)

Getting at the literal sense of Scripture involves not mindlessly chanting, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” in the same way a Muslim shouts “Allahu akbar!” but reading like an adult and distinguishing between the various literary forms by which Scripture reveals to us Jesus Christ. It involves, in short, learning to discern what the author was actually trying to assert, the way he was trying to assert it, and what is incidental to that assertion.

So when an Old Testament writer tells me that the land of Canaan was “flowing with milk and honey” it does not mean that he believed a chemical analysis of the river Jordan would reveal a mixture of bovine glandular secretions and bee vomit. But neither does it mean he meant nothing. Rather it means (obviously) that he knew the land of Canaan to be what it was: an agriculturally rich area where Israel could settle down and be very happy raising farms, flocks, and kidlets.

Fair enough. But, of course, Scripture says quite a lot of other things that involve real claims of the supernatural (or appear to). What do we make of them?

The first thing we have to do is wipe any sneers off our faces. Guys of the Maher school of biblical criticism imagine they are being hard-headed thinkers when they reflexively reject the possibility of the miraculous. One of their favorite slogans is “Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect.” The problem is: that’s not true. Skepticism is, in fact, the sterility of the intellect, just as credulity is. Take either skepticism or credulity too far and you wind up thinking nonsense (as when Maher extends his skepticism to reject, not just the unseen reality of God, but the unseen reality of disease-causing germs or a faith healing devotee chalks up every head cold to a demon). Or worse, you wind up not thinking at all, as when H.G. Wells’ skepticism in his essay "Scepticism of the Instrument” leads him to doubt whether he can know anything—or the hyper-credulous person believes it when somebody says a 900 foot tall Jesus appeared to Oral Roberts, demanding cash.

Atheists should know that reflexive skepticism and reflexive credulity are both enemies of the Catholic intellectual tradition, which counsels instead both reason and faith. Catholics believe that the devil sends both dogmatic skepticism and brainless credulity into the world as a pair so that, fearing one, we might flee to the other and be ensnared. Maheresque skeptics, living in the delusional fear that millions of Christians credulously believe the Virgin appears regularly on a grilled cheese sandwiches, runs to the opposite extreme of refusing to acknowledge the miraculous even if it walks up and hits them in the face. Oh sure, they may talk a good game about their desire for “scientific proof”, as Émile Zola did when he said he just wanted to see a cut finger dipped in Lourdes water and healed. But when confronted with a miracle (as Zola was by the miraculous healing of a tubercular woman whose half-destroyed face was healed after a bath at Lourdes) the dogmatic skeptic simply declares, as Zola did, “Were I to see all the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle.” This is not reason. This is unreason: a dogmatic faith that miracles cannot happen which precedes and excludes any possible testimony to the miraculous, including the testimony of one’s own two eyes.

The sane approach to the question of the supernatural is therefore to embrace a reasonable openness to the possibility of the supernatural combined with a sensible willingness to use the sense God gave a goose. In short, it’s the same approach we use for determining all other matters of historical fact: are the witnesses really trying to tell us a miracle occurred in actual human history and are they reliable witnesses? Not all biblical documents are über-clear about these questions, but as a general rule, it’s not all that hard to tell them apart.

So, for instance, Jerome—the greatest biblical scholar of antiquity—tells us that the creation story is written “after the manner of a popular poet” or, as we say today, in mythic language. This is a shock to the Mahers of the world, who just knew from listening to other like-minded Mahers of the world that ancient Christians all took every syllable of Genesis literalistically.

On the other hand, Jerome does not poeticize when the biblical author obviously intends to be offering reportage of eyewitness accounts that are extremely close to the event. So when John tells us that Mary Magdalene saw the Risen Christ and Thomas stood with his finger poised over the wound in the hands, feet and side of the His Glorified Body, Jerome knows perfectly well John means to say, “The man I saw crucified on Good Friday is the same man I saw alive and well three days later. He is God in glorified human flesh!”

Jerome knows that John is not saying, “Jesus was eaten by wild dogs and his carcass is now scattered across the Judean wilderness, but I am sublimating my guilt by concocting a messianic myth compounded of Israelite myth, rumors of Osiris, and the delusional gestalt of me and my half-crazed friends.” Jerome, like Paul, knows that if Christ is not raised as the apostles say, then the whole thing is a load of skubala and the apostles are a bunch of lying dirtbags (1 Cor. 15:12-19). In short, Jerome knows the difference between mythic language and an eyewitness account. He can make the distinction and give each text the sort of assent it asks of him.

Now, the only question is, “How do you tell the difference between accounts of the miraculous and mere fictional tales?”

To get some tools for sorting that out there are, as the Second Vatican Council taught in Dei Verbum, three things we must take special care to do when approaching Scripture:

1. Be especially attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”;

2. Read the Scripture within “the living tradition of the whole Church”; and,

3. Be attentive to the analogy of faith.

Next week, we’ll look at how to flesh those guidelines out.
 
 
Originally posted at Catholic Exchange. Used with permission.
(Image credit: Evangelicals for Social Action)

Mark Shea

Written by

Mark Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. He has written more than ten books including his most recent works, The Heart of Catholic Prayer: Re-Discovering the Our Father and the Hail Mary (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012) and The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ (Servant, 2012). Many of Mark's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Mark currently lives in Washington State with his wife, Janet, and their sons. Follow Mark through his blog, Catholic and Enjoying It!

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  • Sqrat

    Catholics believe that the devil sends both dogmatic skepticism and
    brainless credulity into the world as a pair so that, fearing one, we
    might flee to the other and be ensnared. Maheresque skeptics, living in
    the delusional fear that millions of Christians credulously believe the
    Virgin appears regularly on a grilled cheese sandwiches, runs to the
    opposite extreme of refusing to acknowledge the miraculous even if it
    walks up and hits them in the face.

    Bill Maher is the victim of mind control by the Evil One? Call me skeptical....

    • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

      Well, it's an explanation, certainly...

      • Sqrat

        One that I find utterly religulous.

        • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

          So you could be a victim of mind-control as well. This is starting to make more sense.

          • David Nickol

            I don't think it is accurate to say that "Catholics believe that the devil sends both dogmatic skepticism and
            brainless credulity into the world." Maybe some Catholics do. Why do you feel a need to defend this dubious statement? Because Mark Shea said it? Because Sqrat questioned it? I must say that it leapt out at me when I read the post, and I decided to ignore it because it was peripheral. The post is about how Catholics read the Bible, not how the devil allegedly tries to undermine human beings. But since Sqrat brought it up, and you are defending it, I think it's fair to ask on what basis it can be said that "Catholics believe that the devil sends both dogmatic skepticism and brainless credulity into the world."How can the devil send skepticism and credulity into the world? Can skepticism and credulity be packaged and sent? While I think the statement is peripheral to the question of how Catholics read the Bible, I also think it is the kind of fuzzy and unfounded talk—bordering on superstition—that undermines confidence in a piece like this. Do we really need to resort to the devil to explain why some people are extremely skeptical and others are extremely credulous? It is interesting that people who put so much emphasis on free will also seem to imagine we are being tricked, manipulated, and lied to by the devil.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            I was making a joke! Seriously.

            I wasn't actually defending it. If I was, my posts would be much longer.

          • David Nickol

            I wasn't actually defending it. If I was, my posts would be much longer.

            As Emily Litella would say, "Nevermind."

            Except you do imply you would or could defend the statement. It is off topic, though, except it might be taken to imply that those who do not interpret the Bible the same way Catholics do (or Mark Shea does) have been tripped up by the devil.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            I could defend the statement, as the Sophists could and would take whatever position would make them money. It doesn't mean I have any desire to defend it, however, since I don't believe the Devil is required for anyone to be ignorant, whether they be Christian or not.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            This was probably unnecessarily haughty. My point is, I don't think its a position actually worth defending, much less an accurate statement about reality.

          • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

            This was probably unnecessarily haughty.

            That made me laugh! I've never seen that self-description in a comment section before, and as someone can also be unnecessarily haughty at times, it took me by delightful surprise.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          So Mark was right, and some folks cannot recognize allegorical language?

          The devil is temptation, and since "virtus in media stet," temptations always have two extremes away from virtue, as for example cowardice and foolhardiness are extremes away from the virtue of courage. In this case: skepticism and credulity are opposite extremes of belief (be-lief = be-love).

          Also the devil, being evil (defectus boni, a defect/lack of a good) "sends" things in the manner of negation, the way electricity is "sent" down a wire. (The electrons actually move the other way.)

          • David Nickol

            So Mark was right, and some folks cannot recognize allegorical language?

            Can you say for a fact that Mark Shea was using allegorical (I would say figurative) language? It is Catholic teaching that the devil is a person, is very real, and is active in the world:

            2851 In this petition ["deliver us from evil"] evil is not an abstraction, but refers to a person, Satan, the Evil One, the angel who opposes God. The devil (dia-bolos) is the one who "throws himself across" God's plan and his work of salvation accomplished in Christ.

            2852 "A murderer from the beginning, . . . a liar and the father of lies," Satan is "the deceiver of the whole world." Through him sin and death entered the world and by his definitive defeat all creation will be "freed from the corruption of sin and death." Now "we know that anyone born of God does not sin, but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him. We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one."

            There is no way to interpret that allegorically. I think conservative Catholics would accuse liberal Catholics of being embarrassed by "old fashioned" ideas like demons at work in the world and hiding behind such statements as "the devil is temptation." Note, for example, the following:

            Reflecting on the hesitancy of religious leaders to speak about Satan, Archbishop Chaput said, “It is very odd that in the wake of the bloodiest century in history – a century when tens of millions of human beings were shot, starved, gassed and incinerated with superhuman ingenuity – even many religious leaders are embarrassed to talk about the devil.”

            In "orthodox" Catholicism, the devil is not "temptation." The devil is a real person who tempts people.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            The devil is real, that is what the Catechism teaches. He is a real entity. The question, though, is whether Shea, who is apt to wax poetic from time to time, means the actual devil, or not. I'm inclined on the one hand to say it doesn't really matter? Does it? The end result being you can be painfully credulous or obstinately ignorant?

          • David Nickol

            I'm inclined on the one hand to say it doesn't really matter? Does it?

            Well, his piece is about how Catholics interpret the Bible. Applying his own standards about interpreting texts, it seems we can't even tell if he was speaking literally or figuratively. Why in the world, then, should we assume common sense will determine what is literal and what is figurative in ancient texts produced by long-gone cultures?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Well, yes. They invented the concept of "person," after all. The devil can be temptation personified and be a person who tempts. What is the contradiction?

          • David Nickol

            The devil can be temptation personified and be a person who tempts. What is the contradiction?

            I think you are obfuscating. The Catholic Church teaches that Satan is a real person, part of God's creation, a fallen angel, a being that can act in the world. That is not compatible with saying that the devil is (only) temptation personified. It is really impossible to know how figuratively or literally Mark Shea meant his comment. But certainly there are many Catholics who would not hesitate to say something like that and mean it quite literally. As I said to Daniel McGiffin, Shea's post is about reasonable determinations about what was meant literally and what was meant figuratively, and it's impossible to do that with passages in his own post, let alone ancient texts!

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            the devil is (only) temptation personified

            What do you mean "only"? Temptation itself, Nothingness itself, Emptiness itself strutting around is "only"? Or do you prefer to think on the Tempter as a sort of medicine show barker luring the rubes into his tent?

            BTW, he cannot "act" in the world. He can only tempt. Recall "the world, the flesh, and the devil." The world provides tempting goodies, the flesh (via original sin) provides the weakness to temptation, and the devil whispers in your ear "What can it hurt?" hoping you won't figure that out until it's too late.

          • David Nickol

            What do you mean "only"?

            I mean that if someone claims the devil is "temptation personified" or is in some other way not a literal person with an intellect and will, created by God as a person—an angel—who rebelled against God and continues to exist as a malevolent creature and a force for evil in the world, they are not teaching what the Catholic Church teaches. When the Catholic Church says that Satan or the devil is real, they do not mean to convey metaphorically that there is evil in the world. They mean that an angel was created whom we call Satan, he rebelled against God, and he continues to exist as a person and to attempt to do evil and influence people to do evil.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            I think Ye Olde means by personified that he is an actual person. The only literal problem witht hat interpretation (which works fine figuratively), is that he was called "sin personified", "evil personified" but all of these things are not things, but deprivations.

          • David Nickol

            A quote from Mark Shea:

            In all this, my point is to stress the need for prudence and sound judgment in discussing the demonic. The trouble is, prudence and sound judgment are in short supply in modern media, which is why I think it inadvisable for Catholics to spend too much time discussing the demonic in the public square, since it tends to generate heat, not light.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            Well yes, the issue arose from Ye Olde's presentation, not the Devil. The Devil is a reality. It is an entity, a person, a fallen angel.

          • David Nickol

            The Devil is a reality. It is an entity, a person, a fallen angel.

            I agree this is what the Church teaches, and it seems a fact that many "modern" Catholics are uncomfortable with it, preferring to come up with figurative interpretations of any reference to the devil. Obviously, there are figurative uses of the concept, but it seems to me that because official teaching is that the devil is real, and this teaching seems quaint and old fashioned and perhaps something akin to superstition, it would be a good thing for Catholics not to use the concept figuratively, lest non-"orthodox" Catholics and others get the impression that Catholicism accepts the idea that the devil is some kind of metaphor.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            It's a line to walk, definitely. But like Brandon just said, I don't think Ye Olde actually gainsaid any doctrine. I was only trying to speak to presentation

          • Geena Safire

            but all of these things are not things, but deprivations...

            And why? To get the deity off the hook again for being responsible for evil in his creation. But that is not credible.

            If it was a thing that is present, the deity put it there.

            If it is absent, then the deity left it out.

            If it happened later, the deity made it possible for it to happen later, with full foreknowledge.

            In any case, the deity is responsible.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            How can you say that Temptation personified is "only"? It is far more dangerous a thing than merely one tempter among many.

            How can you say that something that is person-ified is not a person? That is, Temptation as a person is still a person.

          • Sqrat

            Shea says, "Catholics believe that the devil sends both dogmatic skepticism and brainless credulity into the world as a pair so that, fearing one, we might flee to the other and be ensnared." Substituting "temptation" for "the devil", this becomes, "Catholics believe that temptation sends both skepticism and brainless credulity into the world as a pair so that, fearing one, we might flee to the other and be ensnared."

            What other word or phrase substitutions are necessary to to translate Shea's statement into a literal truth claim?

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            You just don't understand figurativity when you see it.

          • Sqrat

            Let's say rather that I'm getting the impression from this discussion that when a Catholic says "Catholics believe...", I should not assume that what follows is a literal claim about what Catholics believe. Allow me to suggest that that is not necessarily an effective strategy for explaining to non-Catholics what Catholics believe.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            Some Catholics are more generous with their figurative forms. As always, questions seeking clarity are appreciated.

          • Sqrat

            It would be preferable to obtain such clarity from the original author and not from exegetes (who may, after all, be wrong about their exegesis). Since Mark Shea is a living author, we could, in principle, just ask him what he actually meant. That technique does not, of course, work with ancient authors. Not only can we not ask them for clarification, in many cases we simply have no idea who they actually were.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            Maybe this need for exegesis was a deliberately placed lesson placed there by Mr. Shea.

          • Sqrat

            Or maybe it wasn't.

            I think that "either it was or it wasn't" covers all the possibilities.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            You've neglected the dialethietc possibility that it both was and wasn't.

  • Ben Posin

    The "Scripture" was written at different times by different people, and exactly what its contents should be were up for debate. It seems a little odd to start with the assumption that there is a "unity of the whole scripture," rather than actually looking at the texts and deciding from there.
    I don't think anyone disputes that there are some metaphors in the bible, but I am still left at a loss at the end of this article as to how to decide which is which.

    • Vasco Gama

      There are various simple aproaches to this difficult problem:

      1 no methaphors
      2 all metaphors
      3 some, but not all metaphores

      Now 3 is a tricky situation naturaly subject to all kinds of arbitrarieties, but we could overcome this by faith on those that have being studying the scriptures for centuries, let us say respecting the authority of the Church on this issue. But then there is a problem, maybe it is reasonable not to trust so much, so maybe there is reason for us to be sceptic about the authority of those people (maybe there were fools or ill intended), then maybe we should read and decide ourselves what is or not methaphoric, or maybe we could decide about the methaphoric caracter by tossing a well balanced coin, I don't know about the accuracy of this method, but it would be simple, objective and efficient (and it would save us time).

      • Ben Posin

        Right now we're not talking about "authority," we're talking about methods--so to the extent you want to trust whatever the official Church interpretation is, I'd rather move the conversation to what their interpretors methods were. Flipping a coin may not be the best method. But to the extent that Mr. Shea's post actually discusses any methods, I'm not sure they're that great either.

        • Vasco Gama

          Ben,

          What I really meant is that when we approach the subject of interpreting the scriptures it is not reasonable to dismiss the efforts that were made (in their interpretation) in the past, and that addressing this problem as if it is something new is unreasonable (although one doesn't necessarily has to agree with the proposed interpretation), or at least extremely naïf.

          • Ben Posin

            Vasco,
            Tell me a bit more about the methods used by these past interpretors, and I'll have a much better idea of whether it is reasonable to dismiss their efforts. For example, if they started from the assumption that each pasage must be interpreted so as to support a "unity of the whole text," I start to get a bit doubtful.

          • Vasco Gama

            Ben,

            I would like to help you on that, but I have no knowledge about how the people that interpret the scriptures do it (I am not really the best person to explain that, not even remotely. What I can say is what I would consider reasonable, that is what I would to if I had to, I guess I hould have to consider the narrative (stile, historicity, ...), then I would have to frame within reason to what I knew to be true and rational (from experience, culture, ...), I would try to find sense out of what I was reading, after all that is what we do when we try to read anything, and what each and all of us do when we read the either the Bible or anything else (the morning paper, an history, a science paper, a financial report, a poem,..), in any way if I would find something peculiar (hod or uninteligible) I would seek for help from some one else. Sorry if I can't be more helpful.

  • Octavo

    The three guidelines you use to interpret scripture seem to neglect the individual historical analysis of the books and letters of the bible, instead relying on church tradition and the rest of the books of the bible for context.

    When interpreting the meaning of ancient books and letters, isn't it most important to interpret them in the context of their historical purpose and meaning to their original audiences? I think this is called the historical-critical method. Didn't Pope Pius XII approve of this method in Divino Afflante Spiritu? "Let the interpreter then, with all care and without neglecting any light derived from recent research, endeavor to determine the peculiar character and circumstances of the sacred writer, the age in which he lived, the sources written or oral to which he had recourse and the forms of expression he employed."

    "...the hyper-credulous person believes it when somebody says a 900 foot tall Jesus appeared to Oral Roberts, demanding cash."

    Always nice to see that someone remembers the foibles of my alma mater's founder.

    :)

    ~Jesse Webster

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      Jesse, weren't you raised Catholic? Maybe I'm mistaken, but if you were, how did you end up at Oral Roberts University? I'd love to hear that story.

      • Octavo

        I was actually raised Assembly of God Protestant, but I do have Catholic family members as well as Protestant family.

    • http://carpeveritatemcatholic.blogspot.com.au/ Monica

      Hi Octavo,
      The historical-critical method is a tool for getting at the literal sense, which, as noted above is "the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation."
      Exegesis is the process of understanding the text, and part of getting to that is using the hist-crit method, which has both its limitations and its uses, and so the trick is knowing when to pick it up and put it down.

      • Octavo

        It is not correct to say that the historical-critical method is a tool for getting at the literal sense. It is supposed to help us determine when ancient writers intend their audience to interpret a passage in a metaphorical or poetic sense.

        When do you think we should put down the hist-crit method?

        ~Jesse Webster

        • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

          When an ancient writer intends his or her audience to interpret a passage in a metaphorical or poetic sense, then that is the "literal" sense.

          • Octavo

            I think you need a new word. It's not helpful to use indicate that an intended metaphorical passage is literal.

            It's literally making my head explode. :D

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            Yeah, in the last few years I've heard the term "literalistic" bandied about as a term for the on-the-face-of-it meaning of the words. As in:

            Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)

            The literalistic meaning: God is a material being with two hands, one of which is his right hand, and that's the one he'll use to uphold you.

            The literal meaning: "right hand" is a poetic way of describing God's saving power as dexterous and favorable. He does it easily, as you would use your favored hand (which is the right hand for most of us). And the poet probably means to imply his favor toward us, since the "right" hand of the king is where the more important people sit.

            We've come to use the term "literal" to mean what I call the "literalistic" meaning, but that's not historically correct. That's why Augustine, in his book, On the literal meaning of Genesis, was perfectly happy to describe the seven days as a sequence of awareness in the minds of the angels (or something like that; it's been a while). Because he thought the literal interpretation of the seven days was the metaphorical one.

          • Octavo

            Still confusing, but I appreciate the explanation. I found another explanation here: http://sydneyanglicans.net/blogs/culture/literal_or_literalistic_whats_the_difference

            Using this definition of terms, why would we need more than the literal meaning that the historical-critical method provides?

            I'm familiar with the Protestant method of reading the bible to discover personal messages from God, which seems a bit like Cartomancy.

            Is it actually helpful to interpret scripture in the light of other scripture? In many cases, authors of one book were not aware that the other books were being written, for instance.

            ~Jesse Webster

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            Interpreting scripture in the light of other scripture is an act of faith. By faith Christians believe that the scriptures are one book that tells us of Christ, which gives us a license to be slightly more creative in our exegesis than a literature professor. I think mere reason would only get us as far as a kind of cultural-historical semi-unity (which is nothing to sneeze at, however, and much of the gospel is contained therein).

            [edit: Oh, hey. I'm a Webster on my father's mother's side. We're probably not related, but it's cool nonetheless.]

  • Andre Boillot

    Getting at the literal sense of Scripture involves not mindlessly chanting, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” in the same way a Muslim shouts “Allahu akbar!”

    Gotta love those mindless Muslims, eh?

    but reading like an adult and distinguishing between the various literary forms by which Scripture reveals to us Jesus Christ. It involves, in short, learning to discern what the author was actually trying to assert, the way he was trying to assert it, and what is incidental to that assertion.

    Because there's no such tradition in Islam?

    The first thing we have to do is wipe any sneers off our faces.

    Well, now that we're finished disparaging Muslims.

    • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

      I admit, I thought that was an odd foot to start this post out on. Islam has a rich intellectual tradition of hermeneutics and just about every other critical and philosophical discipline, though admittedly one of the largest schools now was formed in reaction to that tradition.

      • Andre Boillot

        Look, I'll be the first to admit that we all (myself [redundantly] included) tend to view our own systems and beliefs as being much more thought out and rigorous than others'. Just seemed a pretty insulting statement to have hosted on this site.

        • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

          Though it's not wrong, as far as (I said) certain Muslim schools of thought go (and there are parallel Christian schools of thought with the same credo). But it is out of place, I feel. At the least, it's unnecessary.

          • Geena Safire

            as far as (I said) certain Muslim schools of thought go

            Shea didn't say "some Muslims' or "certain Muslim schools." He was referring to any generic Muslim. Shea implied that any Muslim who says that is "mindlessly chanting." He also implied that any Muslim who says that is not acting "like an adult."

            Insult one, insult two, insult three. It was not merely unnecessary nor merely out of place, though it was also those. It was crass and insulting.

            (Plus, for a Catholic to get down on anyone for mindlessly chanting...)

    • David Nickol

      The comments about Muslims are inappropriate and do not belong on Strange Notions.

      • Geena Safire

        I concur with this sentiment. 'Alahu Akbar' means 'God is the greatest' or 'Glory to God.' Why would Catholics, who say the same words week in and week out -- and some daily -- disparage those who pray the same words to the same God in another language?

        Those of a certain age may remember the Latin: 'Deus magnus est' or 'Soli Deo gloria.'

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      Andre, any thoughts on the article's main points instead of commenting on these ancillary lines which really have nothing to do with its primary thrust?

      • Andre Boillot

        You mean, in addition to my many other comments? Sure, he spends a lot of time attacking Maher-shaped strawmen. For example, if I wanted to be as simplistic in my characterization of Catholicism as the author is of other traditions, I would say something like: “God said it; The Church told me how to believe it; that settles it”

        I do agree with the point that the extreme skepticism and credulity are bad. So it had that going for it.

      • Andre Boillot

        BTW, calling offensive lines in the OP ancillary is a dodge. You would (and have) chastise any commentor that made similar remarks.

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          It's not a dodge. You devoted an entire top-level, multi-paragraph comment to an irrelevant issue.

          Even more, your last two lines in that comment refer to lines that Mark never directed at Muslims. He never claimed Islam lacked a tradition, nor that Muslims have sneers on their faces.

          While I strongly agree we shouldn't intentionally offend people, I just don't think your comment was fruitful, helpful, or relevant.

          • Andre Boillot

            You crack me up Brandon.

            "Top-level"? What does the location have anything to do with this? "Multi-paragraph"? I mean, I quoted a paragraph, broke it up, and added three sentence-length comments. "irrelevant issue"? Well, judging by similar comments made by others (including an SN mod), and the related upvotes, perhaps not that irrelevant.

            Since you single out my last two comments in that post, am I to understand that you agree with the first?

            "He never claimed Islam lacked a tradition"

            Maybe not [EDIT:] completely lacking a tradition as much as belittling the one they do, but it's hard to tell given the construction of the paragraph, and given the earlier swipe at Muslims I wasn't inclined to give the benefit of the doubt. The way I broke his comments up makes it harder to see this. Here is the text as it was originally presented:

            Getting at the literal sense of Scripture involves not mindlessly chanting, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” in the same way a Muslim shouts “Allahu akbar!” but reading like an adult and distinguishing between the various literary forms by which Scripture reveals to us Jesus Christ. It involves, in short, learning to discern what the author was actually trying to assert, the way he was trying to assert it, and what is incidental to that assertion.

            To me, that seems like equating Muslims with "mindless chanting" vs. "reading like an adult", that the latter is what thoughtful scriptural interpretation entails, and that Muslims don't do this.

            "He never claimed...that Muslims have sneers on their faces."

            Nor have I accused him of claiming such, I was just noting that he waits until after he's done insulting Muslims before giving his advice on what sort of face to make.

            "I just don't think your comment was fruitful, helpful, or relevant."

            You are, of course, entitled to your own opinion.

            EDITED FOR CLARITY

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            Andre, while I did agree that it was a misplaced comment, I also have to agree with Brandon, we try to keep comments focused on the topic at hand, the issue raised by the writer, more than the writer's phraseology. It doesn't move the big conversation along. We know this.

            You brought it up, and that's fine. But when someone points out that it's off-topic, well, it was.

          • Andre Boillot

            Et tu Daniel?

            I think here we risk running into a semantic debate on 'off-topic' (fair enough) vs. 'irrelevant' (disagree), and I'd just assume save us all the trouble. Point taken.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            I'm sorry, Andre, and I see and recognize your distinction.

          • Andre Boillot

            Also, are we to take it that - since offensive remarks are "irrelevant" issues - you will be revising the commenting guidelines to reflect that it's fine to be snarky as long as you're making a larger point?

          • MichaelNewsham

            I believe the guidelines already existing are "it's fine to be snarky as long as it's not against Catholics".

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            This is an old rehash of a non-issue.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            Haha you diverted his point, intentionally or not. The irrelevant issue is the Muslim's shouting, which has no real bearing on the point of the argument (the argument doesn't change when you take those lines out). These were ancillary lines that you pointed out.

            We are going down the rabbit hole, as it were. That's all.

          • Andre Boillot

            Diverted? I'm not sure how ('irrelevant' and 'offensive' not being mutually exclusive). You're correct that the authors argument doesn't change when the Muslim comment is removed, which begs the question of why it's there to begin with. My issue is that we're essentially being told, as commentors, that this is a no-snark-zone. Then, when somebody raises issues with OP's, we're told to ignore the snark, as it has nothing to do with the main thrust of the arguments presented. Fair enough (not really), though why not take the same approach to the comments?

            In any case, I've said my piece, and will pipe-down.

  • David Nickol

    It is not quite as simple as Mark Shea makes it out to be. For one thing, many Catholics accept the Bible as a unified whole, with the Old Testament being a preparation for, and filled with references to, events in the life of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament. This fundamentally alters the way one reads the Bible, and it is not a matter of discerning the plain meaning of the text. To interpret the Bible (Old and New Testaments) as a unified whole rests entirely on faith, not on reading and analyzing the text.

    There are also different ways of looking at the Bible as a unified whole, one being that—Jesus and the Apostles being Jews—they quite naturally saw religious matters in terms of the only Scripture they knew and believed in—Hebrew scripture. That makes a great deal of sense. But that is quite different from reading the Old Testament as being filled with reference to, and predictions of, the life of Jesus. I just recently wrote about one of the most dubious of all Christian readings of the Old Testament—the so-called Protoevangelium, Genesis 3:15, quoted here from the New American Bible, Revised Edition:

    I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
    They will strike at your head,
    while you strike at their heel.

    The footnote reads as follows:

    [3:15] They will strike…at their heel: the antecedent for “they” and “their” is the collective noun “offspring,” i.e., all the descendants of the woman. Christian tradition has seen in this passage, however, more than unending hostility between snakes and human beings. The snake was identified with the devil (Wis 2:24; Jn 8:44; Rev 12:9; 20:2), whose eventual defeat seemed implied in the verse. Because “the Son of God was revealed to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:8), the passage was understood as the first promise of a redeemer for fallen humankind, the protoevangelium. Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. A.D. 130–200), in his Against Heresies 5.21.1, followed by several other Fathers of the Church, interpreted the verse as referring to Christ, and cited Gal 3:19 and 4:4 to support the reference. Another interpretive translation is ipsa, “she,” and is reflected in Jerome’s Vulgate. “She” was thought to refer to Mary, the mother of the messiah. In Christian art Mary is sometimes depicted with her foot on the head of the serpent.

    If you read this footnote carefully (as with many other notes in the NAB) it is carefully worded (or so it seems to me) to actually claim this verse predicts a redeemer. I think that is because contemporary biblical scholars, including Catholic scholars, want to acknowledge Christian tradition and the interpretations of some of the Fathers of the Church without endorsing it. There is, in fact, not evidence in the text that there is anything predicted or explained in this verse other than human antipathy to snakes (real enough) and the fact snakes don't walk on legs.

    There is simply no evidence in the story of Adam and Eve to conclude that the serpent was the devil, and in fact the story dates to a time when their was no belief in the devil or fallen angels. When the text says, "Now the snake was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made," the snake is clearly identified as a snake, not as Satan. If the snake was really Satan, why do snakes henceforth suffer the curse God puts on them. If the snake was Satan or a devil, why punish all descendents of snakes?

    I think the trend in modern Catholic biblical scholarship, in actual practice, is away from finding references to Jesus on every page of the New Testament, but it seems to me conservative Vatican documents and most Catholics are somewhat scandalized by those biblical scholars who do not adhere to traditional interpretations.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Dave, you must have been hell on wheels in poetry class. What a text means depends as much on its users, independently of what the author may have originally intended. There is also the intent of the people who selected the text and the way they used it. The four-fold sense -- historico/literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical -- apply throughout. It's not necessarily a case that one passage is only historical while another passage is only anagogical. Passages are frequently all four. Think of the way a pair of lovers may use a tree, perhaps the site of their first kiss. The grower of the tree, perhaps the homeowner who first planted it years ago, intended it to shade his living room. The lovers, too, may be grateful for the shade, but to them it is also a symbol of their undying love for each other and the growth of the tree over the years symbolizes their growing love. At least until a curmudgeonly Dave comes along and tells them that there is nothing in the botany of the tree, no critical-historical study of bark and leaf that reveals this love.

      Your plaint is essentially that if it isn't literalistic, it isn't there.

      • David Nickol

        Your plaint is essentially that if it isn't literalistic, it isn't there.

        The problem is that many in the Catholic Church do not read Genesis like poetry. It is taken as a fact that the serpent in the garden was Satan. It is taken as a fact (by many) that whether or not they were named Adam and Eve, the human race had two "first parents." And it is taken as fact that our "first parents" committed some kind of sin:

        390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents. [Emphasis in the original]

        I majored in English and was never accused of not "getting" poetry. It seems to me you are trying to blur the sharp lines drawn by the Church about certain matters of doctrine to make things more palatable or less vulnerable to criticism.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          It is taken as a fact that the serpent in the garden was Satan.

          Not sure what you can mean by "fact" here. The passage is clearly mythic, which means it is using the tropes of ancient poetry to explain some truth about humanity. If the garden was the primeval forest in which roamed animals that were not yet quite human, there were undoubtedly snakes about. And if Satan were in the mood to tempt someone newly endowed with the ability to reason to use that reason selfishly, it could very well have been used snake. (Keep in mind that in Syriac, a "serpent" is slang for an "enemy or adversary," and this could as easily have been true of the ancestors of the Syriac-speakers, i.e., Aramaic and Hebrew-speakers.

          It is taken as a fact (by many) that ... the human race had two "first parents."

          Actually, dogma only insists that the human race is descended from one man, the adam. (The term meant "red clay", and still does, I am told, in Arabic. Hence, "formed out of the clay," a reasonable scientific inference considering that when a man dies he decays back into clay.) The meaning is that all human being alive today (or at the time of writing) belong to the same species. St. Augustine even said this included any rational animal, including blemyae, sciopods, centaurs, and other exotic beings supposedly living on other p/l/a/n/e/t/s parts of the world. So he was clearly writing of metaphysical humans, not biological ones. If we accept evolution as a metaphysic for the emergence of the physical body, then there must have been creatures that were fully biologically human, but which did not have a rational soul (substantial form), just as there may be rational beings who do not have the human physical form. But among these biological humans, so it is said, one awakened or was awakened to rational thought. This meant that unlike the other, merely biological humans, he could abstract concepts from concrete particulars. He was kind of lonely for a while, and tried to pal around with various animals; but none of them were fit companions. And then, one day... Well, you know how it goes.

          Biologically, to say that everyone is descended from one man does not mean that everyone is descended from ONLY one man. We even know there was one man from whom all humans are descended by purely masculine lineage: so-called Y-chromosome "Adam."

          And it is taken as fact that our "first parents" committed some kind of sin

          Original sin is in the sense of the origin or root of sin. It is less a matter of "committing" a sin than of having an inherent weakness or tendency toward sin. Aquinas thought that this might be pride or concupiscence, a conclusion very much like that the Buddha reached when he was Enlightened. Aquinas speculated that this inherent human characteristic was transmitted genetically, but concluded that it was something inherent in the human rational form itself and hence was transmitted in the same way humanity is transmitted.

          Hope this helps.

          • David Nickol

            Not sure what you can mean by "fact" here. The passage is clearly mythic, which means it is using the tropes of ancient poetry to explain some truth about humanity.

            From the Catechism:

            391 Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church's Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called "Satan" or the "devil". The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: "The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing."

            392 Scripture speaks of a sin of these angels.269 This "fall" consists in the free choice of these created spirits, who radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign. We find a reflection of that rebellion in the tempter's words to our first parents: "You will be like God." The devil "has sinned from the beginning"; he is "a liar and the father of lies".

            393 It is the irrevocable character of their choice, and not a defect in the infinite divine mercy, that makes the angels' sin unforgivable. "There is no repentance for the angels after their fall, just as there is no repentance for men after death."

            394 Scripture witnesses to the disastrous influence of the one Jesus calls "a murderer from the beginning", who would even try to divert Jesus from the mission received from his Father. "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil." In its consequences the gravest of these works was the mendacious seduction that led man to disobey God.

            By "fact" I mean, "Scripture and the Church's Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called 'Satan' or the 'devil.'" This does not mean, "This is the way the Catholic Church has long interpreted Genesis, but of course it could be wrong." Scripture and Tradition (with a capital T) are sources of certainty. Interpreting the story of Adam and Eve figuratively, the serpent represents Satan, and Adam and Eve represent our "first parents." If there is anything in official Catholic teaching that even hints that "first parents" is a metaphor, and not a reference to two human beings (the first two), I'd like to have it pointed out to me.

            Hope this helps.

            I think much of what you are saying is quite reasonable, and I would say some of it myself. However, I don't believe it is what the Catholic Church teaches.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "I think much of what you are saying is quite reasonable, and I would say some of it myself. However, I don't believe it is what the Catholic Church teaches."

            This is a pretty remarkable admission because it's usually the other way around with atheists. I think Mike (i.e. Ye Olde Statistician) fairly represented what the Catholic Church teaches. You shared lengthy excerpts from the Catechism but nowhere showed how those excerpts conflict with Mike's comment(s).

          • David Nickol

            This is a pretty remarkable admission because it's usually the other way around with atheists.

            I have never identified (or considered myself) an atheist, although I do sometimes wonder if there really is a God.

            I think the Catechism speaks for itself. Catholic teaching is that God created angels. Some of them rebelled against him, the most prominent of which is known as Satan. Though the concept of the devil can be used metaphorically, the Church teaches that the devil is a real person, Satan, a fallen angel, who—as a person—has the ability to tempt people. I am not saying I believe that myself, but I am saying it could not be clearer that this is what the Church teaches. Whether Ye Old Statistician is saying the following or not, it contradicts Catholic teaching: "People used to believe the devil was a fallen angel, but to us moderns the devil is a metaphor for evil and temptation in the world."

            The Church teaches that original sin was a historical act perpetrated by our "first" parents and that Satan was personally involved, influencing the first humans in some way or another to turn against God. This is Catholic teaching, and it is plainly stated in the Catechism. If I am misinterpreting Ye Old Statistician to be saying something that contradicts this, then maybe I am not reading him carefully enough. But I do believe that I know what the Catholic Church teaches, that it is in the Catechism, and that I understand it.

          • BrianKillian

            Satan isn't a metaphor, the snake is.

            Our first parents are not a metaphor, Adam and Eve are.

            Original sin is not a metaphor, eating forbidden fruit is.

            Communion with God is not a metaphor, the Garden is.

            Our estrangement from God isn't a metaphor, an angel guarding the entrance to the Garden with a flaming sword is.

            Creation isn't a metaphor, God's seven day work week is.

            There is no problem with real persons and historical events being referred to in poetic and mythical descriptions. Sometimes, that's the only way to communicate the most profound truths of *real* things, events and persons.

            The Catechism says all this. Those stories describe in mythical language real human events and realities.

          • David Nickol

            Brian, I agree completely that this is what the Catechism teaches and the Church teaches—to the extent the Catechism teaches what the Church teaches. I do not think Ye Old Statistician is clearly saying what you are saying, but perhaps he is saying something else that can be reconciled with what you and the Catechism are saying.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            You obviously feel that you are saying things contrary to me, but danged if I can figure out how. Where do you get "metaphor" from? It's a logical necessity, unless you believe that the same random mutation happened to 10,000 ape-men all at the same time, someone had to be first.

          • David Nickol

            It's a logical necessity, unless you believe that the same random mutation happened to 10,000 ape-men all at the same time, someone had to be first.

            We're getting farther and farther removed from the topic of interpreting the Bible, but the idea that there had to be a first man, or first giraffe, or a first dog, or a first anything is utterly alien to evolutionary theory. No one who believes in evolution thinks that there were "almost-humans" and when an "almost-human" male mated with an "almost-human" female, there was a mutation in the offspring that made it a human. Individuals don't evolve; populations do. And it takes hundreds, or thousands, or millions of generations for a population to become a new species. Here is a capsule summary from the Vatican document Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God by the International Theological Commission:

            63. According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the “Big Bang” and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5-4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution. While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population of common genetic lineage. However it is to be explained, the decisive factor in human origins was a continually increasing brain size, culminating in that of homo sapiens. With the development of the human brain, the nature and rate of evolution were permanently altered: with the introduction of the uniquely human factors of consciousness, intentionality, freedom and creativity, biological evolution was recast as social and cultural evolution.

          • Geena Safire

            This meant that unlike the other, merely biological humans, he could abstract concepts from concrete particulars.

            That's an interesting idea, but pretty much proven completely false by modern neuroscience and neurology. Unless evolution developed our enormous pre-frontal cortex just for fun over several million years until the soul could be popped in and make it do stuff. That's just silly.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Unless evolution developed our enormous pre-frontal cortex just for fun over several million years

            You are imputing a teleology to evolution here. I thought evolution was not directed toward any particular end. If so, there is no reason why an organ might develop to a larger size than you see fit.

            until the soul could be popped in

            Souls do not get "popped in" any more than spheres get "popped into" basketballs. Soul is the substantial form of a living being. Since "anima" simply means "alive", a being without a soul is not alive. You may be thinking of the mish-mosh made by Descartes a while back, who thought the soul was itself a substance (a union of matter and form) which he called the res cogitans, rather than the form of the human substance.

            The brains are a congeries of organs that receive and collate sensory inputs into an ymago (or phantasm). That is, the red, the crunch, the sweet, the firmness, etc. are all perceived as the same apple, even though the signals arrive in the brain at different times (the common sense). This ymago can be stored (memory) and even manipulated (imagination). All of these depend upon material phenomena. But intellection is distinctly different from imagination. The intellect reflects upon perceptions in order to abstract conceptions, but conceptualizing does not involve material objects as such. Fido and Spot are material beings, but "dog" is not. Neither is "four," "homeomorphic," "differentiable manifold," or "red."

            Since it is nearly impossible to conceive of anything without imagining something along with it -- think of "dog" and you will always picture a particular dog; think of "triangularity" and you will picture a particular triangle; think of "differentiable manifold" and you will think of ∂M equals some formula. Since the imagination uses the brain to draw on memories and images (visual, aural, etc.) there will always be associated brain activity.

          • Geena Safire

            You are imputing a teleology to evolution here. I thought evolution was not directed toward any particular end. If so, there is no reason why an organ might develop to a larger size than you see fit.

            There is every reason it wouldn't. Neurons are very expensive, energetically speaking. Half of our energy is used to run our brains. Any mutation that uses lots of energy and doesn't contribute some advantage is likely to decrease one's reproductive fitness.

            More importantly, there wouldn't be increase after increase, each using more and more energy, retained evolutionarily (to get to our complex prefrontal cortex) without some functional advantage.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            So there is a telos? Minimizing energy. Hunh. Personally, I suspect that all that brain is used to do brain stuff. Some critters got better smell than us -- rats, dogs -- but then their brains are all taken up with olfactory processing and their eyesight is poor. I'm pretty sure our big brains are necessary to form complete ymagos. Look at dolphin brains, also relatively big, where complex sonar images must be realized and integrated with the rest of the dolphin's senses.

            The point is that intellection, since it deals with immaterial things -- concepts, universals, etc. -- is not necessarily grounded in a material organ. So whether the brain preceded abstraction or not is moot.

            I had read years ago the speculation that much of the brain is used for heat dissipation. Early hominids by this theory spend mucho time chasing down game. (Humans can run down horses because horses eventually forget why they're running. Humans can persist, rest, resume, while the horse forgets.) In any case, it may be big in order to spill the heat. Anything else is a spandrel. No one can really know.

          • Geena Safire

            So there is a telos?

            No. There is adaptive selection, which happens after. If a random mutation/replication error leads to a change that is net beneficial for reproductive success, it tends to survive. If it leads to a change that is net detrimental, it tends not to remain in the population.

            If a brain change adds neurons (which cost energy) but provides no benefit, that is a net negative. That change is unlikely to be conserved. The many changes that would have added the hundreds of millions of additional neurons needed for our prefrontal cortex would not have occurred, over the several million years of hominin evolution, if they didn't serve a survival function.

            But the prefrontal cortex does the functions ascribed to the "soul." The soul apparently got popped into one individual, the Adam, apparently at some point in evolution when the prefrontal cortex was already present but, presumably, unable to do those functions prior to ensoulment. But the prefrontal cortex wouldn't have emerged through evolution without serving a function. It doesn't add up.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            But if the "prefrontal cortex," which you assume is the organ used for abstraction of immaterial concepts, did evolve to provide for heat dissipation (and later got co-opted for other uses), or if it did simply free-ride as a "spandrel" on the back of a shrinking jaw, there doesn't seem much negativity involved. But these positives and negatives always seem to be ex post facto. What reproductive success is enhanced by the ability to differentiate continuous functions on a manifold? Will this attract mates? Result in more offspring?

            I notice you use terms like "adapt" ("toward [greater] aptness"), "serve a function," and so forth. These are teleological terms since they impute a towardness to an end. Your description of how this end is achieved doesn't remove the end. You can't have efficient causes without finality.

            On the face of it, a change that leads to high blood pressure, an increased risk of stroke, and a very awkward stance vis a vis predators while drinking would seem pretty net negative. Yet giraffes seem to thrive. And because they are surviving, we "know" there must be an offsetting advantage, and so we will spin a just-so story to account for it. But really, if a trait or feature doesn't actually kill the organism before reproductive success, how is it deselected? I wonder if Kimura was more right: you play the cards what's been dealt yuh and make the best of a bad deal.

          • Geena Safire

            ...prefrontal cortex which you assume is the organ used for abstraction of immaterial concepts...

            There's this cool thing called a search engine. Google (google.com) is an example. You should check it out. Plus Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org) is a great source for general information on a wide range of topics. Really!

            "[The prefrontal cortex] has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. The basic activity of this brain region is considered to be orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals.

            The most typical psychological term for functions carried out by the prefrontal cortex area is executive function.
            Executive function relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social 'control' (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes)."

            That ancient, ancient idea that thoughts about abstract and material things are different is stupid. Let it go. The brain treats them both the same. In the brain, everything is a representation, a mapping of reality.

            These are teleological terms since they impute a towardness to an end.

            No, they are not because, no, they don't. For each individual, there is a reproductive drive.

            But although all desire, just as much, to reproduce, some individuals are more successful than others; this is called 'better reproductive fitness.' Why are they more successful? Many, many reasons: More healthy (because stronger or better able to cope with heat/cold or better at finding food or better at getting along or more resistant to disease...), more attractive to mates (because more healthy...), healthier offspring (because better adapted), etc.

            Bacteria, viruses, archaea, plants, fungi, animals -- most of the extant species in these categories all have a feature in common -- reproductive fitness over evolutionary time. There is no single "end" that each of these have in common except that they are all still alive. No cyanobacteria had being a mammal as an "end" in 'mind', even though some of its descendents ended up there, nor an insect, even though some of its descendents ended up there, (though more ended up in other categories, and some categories reached dead ends).

            Try to adapt your thinking to reality instead of trying to cram reality into your existing mindset.

            I notice you use terms like "adapt"

            No, I don't. I use the word "adaptive." If a change assists an organism to thrive in any of a number of ways in its environment such that it has better reproductive success OR if an environmental change causes an existing feature to give a better reproductive succes, that change is likely to spread and that allele become more frequent in that population.

            The phrase for this 'better reproductive success due to some environmental advantage of a feature' is "adaptive selection." That feature allows organism(s) with that feature to be better adapted to their environment. Existing different feature --> Better adaptation --> Greater reproductive success --> Increase of that feature in that population in that environment. Evolution is the change in allelic frequency in a population.

            The organism doesn't "adapt" such as "noticing" that an ice age is coming on and "deciding" to develop a thicker fur. If no members of the population already have have a thicker-fur gene (or some other feature), then that population will stay and freeze and go extinct.

            [I]f a trait or feature doesn't actually kill the organism before reproductive success, how is it deselected?

            It isn't. That's why we still have Huntington's disease -- because its onset is after the reproductive years. Same for Alzheimer's disease. Several cancers. Many others.

          • Methodological Naturalist

            Good clarification on the word adapt. It's a word that's frequently misunderstood.

            One can teach evolution by natural selection without any need to mention it.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            "[The prefrontal cortex] has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior."

            Indeed. But none of that is intellective in nature and can be carried out by most creatures with significant memory and imagination. Heck even ants and bees can be seen to carry out social behavior and make decisions without any prefrontal cortex at all.

            The old Scientists of the Revolution would cringe to hear a term like "implicate" used as if it demonstrated a scientific causal relationship. But that is the price we pay for embracing Hume. Correlation rules the roost today.

            Executive function relates to...

            Certainly it "relates" to. As we said: every act of the intellect involves an act of the imagination, and the imagination, involving as it does the manipulation of remembered perceptions of concrete particulars, certainly makes footprints in the brain.

            That ancient, ancient idea that thoughts about abstract and material things are different is stupid.

            Stupid? Ah, thus the idea has been refuted! What an incisive argument.

            In the brain, everything is a representation, a mapping of reality.

            You realize you are begging the question, don't you? We've already noted that intellection and imagination run together. It would be well to have an emprical demonstration that the pattern in the brain is caused by the intellective activity rather than the associated imaginative activity.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            These are teleological terms since they impute a towardness to an end.

            No, they are not because, no, they don't. For each individual, there is a reproductive drive.

            Make up your mind. A "drive" cannot be a "reproductive" drive unless it points toward the end of reproduction.

            What makes evolution so different from physics and chemistry, the "hard sciences"? Attractor basins, equilibrium points, and the like are quite familiar concepts there. Even in biology, tiger cubs mature into tigers, not tiger lillies, and grow so big and no bigger. Telomeres split a certain number of times and then stop. Without these towardnesses, there could not be efficient causes moving them specifically toward those ends. Planets would fly off in random directions; sodium and chlorine would combine into a Chevy Impala; birds would gather twigs and drop them will-he, nill-he, in random locations. Without telos, there could be no common course of nature.

            No, I don't [use terms like "adapt]. I use the word "adaptive." ... The phrase for this 'better reproductive success due to some environmental advantage of a feature' is "adaptive selection."

            You keep using teleological language to deny teleology. Even the term "better" signifies a direction in the process. You seem to think I disagree with the efficient causal mechanisms you describe. I don't.

            The organism doesn't "adapt" such as "noticing" that an ice age is coming on and "deciding" to develop a thicker fur.

            Of course not. Why would you suppose it did? Consciously deliberate purpose is only one sort of telos. Surely, when a lion chases a gazelle it has the conscious intent of securing dinner; but when CHCl3 + 2 HF → CHClF2 + 2 HCl the chloroform does not "decide" to become chlorodifluoromethane. It probably can't even pronounce it.

            If no members of the population already have have a thicker-fur gene (or some other feature), then that population will stay and freeze and go extinct.

            Or it will wander south where it's warmer. It is also known that environmental factors can elicit changes in the organism population. There is likely no such thing as a "thicker-fur gene," only genes that express themselves in different ways under different circumstances. Besides "some other feature" is a good out, since it means no matter what happens, survivors survive.

          • David Nickol

            I notice you use terms like "adapt" ("toward [greater] aptness"), "serve a function," and so forth. These are teleological terms since they impute a towardness to an end. Your description of how this end is achieved doesn't remove the end. You can't have efficient causes without finality.

            It is very common to speak this way, but everyone who understands evolution knows that it is a "shortcut." Since 99.9% of species that have ever lived are now extinct, I suppose from one perspective it could be said that the "goal" of evolution is extinction, otherwise it fails to achieve its goal 99.9% of the time. There is no goal in evolution. There is no mystical force that causes organisms to evolve to some "higher" or "better" or more complex state.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            The end of a thing may indeed be frustrated, but you may as well say that the purpose of growth and nutrition is "death," since everyone dies. Since one hears now and then that dinosaurs survive and are called "birds," there is an equivocation on what is meant by "extinction," as opposed to gaining or losing traits.

            Of course there is a goal in evolution: on the broad scale, it is the origin of new species. On the more narrow scale, it is greater fitness of the population to its niche. A random mutation may make an organism less fit, but random mutation is not evolution as such.

            There is no "mystical force" because a) final causes are not efficient causes and b) being purely natural they do not involve the use of force. Even the mystical force called gravity is not now conceptualized as a "force" but as a particular state of the tensor field.

            One often hears that we use terms like "natural selection," "adaptation," "function," and other teleological words because they are shortcuts. One waits in vain for someone to "cash out" these terms.

          • Geena Safire

            I had read years ago the speculation that much of the brain is used for heat dissipation.

            It's one idea. Another idea is that the change that gave us a much, much less robust jaw muscle than our primate cousins allowed the brain to expand because the weaker muscle didn't constrain its growth. Lots of ideas.

          • Geena Safire

            Souls do not get "popped in" any more than spheres get "popped into" basketballs.

            "Popped in," "breathed in," "inserted," "connected," whatever term you like. Per the RCC, the soul wasn't there and then, with one human/hominin, poof, it's there.

            Descartes...

            Nope, not thinking of Descartes, who lived long before even the neuron was discovered. How he thought the soul and/or brain works is of little interest.

            Much of how the average person today think the brain works, regarding such 'folk psychology' concepts as belief, thought, free will, etc., are turning out to have little to do with how the brain actually works.

            Nor, based on the Standard Model of physics, is there any way for an immaterial soul to operate or affect the material brain.

          • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

            Nope, not thinking of Descartes, who lived long before even the neuron was discovered. How he thought the soul and/or brain works is of little interest.

            Hey Geena - I disagree. I think Descartes' conception of the soul exerts huge influence on modern epistemological, metaphysical, and scientific discourse. His influence is palpable in your last comment about an immaterial soul "operating" the material brain. The old ghost in the machine paradigm rears its ugly head constantly, a model which conceives of the soul as a totally distinct substance inhabiting or manipulating the body.

            (I don't mean to perpetuate the tangential discussion, but when I see Rene's name I can't resist.)

          • Geena Safire

            ...on modern epistemological, metaphysical, and scientific discourse...

            Epistemological sure, metaphysical sure. But scientific? Neuroscientific? Nope.

          • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

            Well, I would argue that since Descartes' metaphysical disengagement and separation of the res cogitans (thinking thing) from the res extensa (extended things) is the midwife of modern science, scientific study of the brain tends to glance back wryly on the Cartesian (not Aristotelian-Thomistic) soul through a kind of "via negativa." But the point is that Descartes' conception of the soul was a watershed transformation into a substance dualism-monism oscillation, one that informs the way we talk about souls (even when we're denying their existence in the "spirit" of physicalism).

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            There was always a soul or the hominid was not alive. All animals possess sensitive souls; that is, animae that process stimulus-action loops: they sense things, integrate the senses into perceptions, form emotions (sensory appetites) for the concrete particulars, and then move (for some value of "move") toward or away from the object. This is over and above the vegetative soul and the inanimate form.

            What was "breathed in" (using then then-scientific equation of life with breath) was the rational powers of the soul: intellect and will. Since these powers are immaterial and many Late Moderns dismiss such "folk psychology" as a "thought" and "free will", there really shouldn't be any problem. After all, should there really be a physical account of something non-physical?

            based on the Standard Model of physics, is there any way for an immaterial soul to operate or affect the material brain

            See? Despite your demurral, you are thinking in Cartesian terms, with a little soul-guy sitting inside your head and "operating" the brain. This soul-body problem is akin to the sphere-basketball problem. Based on the Standard Model of physics, is there any way for an immaterial sphere to operate or affect the material rubber?

            Of course, physics deals only with the metrical properties of material bodies, so non-metrical properties are invisible to its methodologies. The physics governing the motion of a baseball are the same whether the baseball is thrown voluntarily by a pitcher or mechanically by a machine in a batting cage. The action of will is invisible to physics.

            Partly, they is likely do to the fact that formal causes are not efficient causes. When a bat strikes a ball with K newtons, the ball strikes the bat with K newtons. All actions are interactions. But although when I want to pick up an apple I move my arm, if you were to grab my arm and move it toward the apple, it would not cause me to want it.

          • Susan

            Souls do not get "popped in" any more than spheres get "popped into" basketballs. Soul is the substantial form of a living being

            So, when the basketball deflates and eventually crumbles to dust, the sphere goes on to live joyously for eternity?

            I know. It's a metaphor. But all it seems to suggest is that "soul" is a single, abstract, idealized description of something.
            The sphere is certainly not the basketball. Or vice versa.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            No. Why would you think so? If basketballs were alive, sphere would be their soul, but it would be no more subsistent than the souls of petunias or parakeets. Only the intellect-and-will portion of the rational soul is not rooted in a material organ and so may survive the death of the body. But sensation, memory, and imagination perish with the organs that sustain them. That is why the Christian creed looks forward to "the resurrection of the body," for it is only then that being is complete. As Thomas Aquinas put it, "My soul is not 'I'."

            However, it is worth noting that sphere does remain even if every basketball perishes, if all spherical objects perish. It will still be true that all of its radii will be equal, that its volume will be four-thirds pi times the cube of its radius, that the area of a lune on its surface will be 2r²θ, and so on. In fact, sphere will be purged of its imperfections due to irregularities in the rubber and to the impossibility of a physically measured irrational π. Accidentals like the color of its skin will be no more, nor will it need to suck air to maintain itself. This remains true even if there are no humans to think about it. But beware. The only thing we have to fear is Sphere Itself.

            Inanimate forms are far simpler than animate ones, being primarily the number and arrangement of its parts and shape. Even so, the being obtains its powers from the form, not the matter. Both chlorine and sodium comprise the same matter: protons, neutrons, electrons. What makes one a poisonous gas and the other a flammable metal is the number and arrangement of these parts; i.e., the form.

          • Susan

            If basketballs were alive, sphere would be their soul

            As I said, I know it's a metaphor.

            Only the intellect-and-will portion of the rational soul is not rooted in a material organ and so may survive the death of the body.

            How does this work? What's the evidence?

            However, it is worth noting that sphere does remain even if every basketball perishes, if all spherical objects perish. It will still be true that all of its radii will be equal, that its volume will be four-thirds pi times the cube of its radius, that the area of a lune on its surface will be 2r²θ, and so on. In fact, sphere will be purged of its imperfections due to irregularities in the rubber and to the impossibility of a physically measured irrational π. Accidentals like the color of its skin will be no more, nor will it need to suck air to maintain itself. This remains true even if there are no humans to think about it.

            What does this have to do with a soul?

            But beware. The only thing we have to fear is Sphere Itself.

            Very cute. I like that. ;-)

            What makes one a poisonous gas and the other a flammable metal is the number and arrangement of these parts; i.e., the form.

            What does this have to do with a soul?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            How does this work?

            This may help:
            http://thomism.wordpress.com/2008/02/22/science-and-the-immateriality-of-the-intellect/
            http://thomism.wordpress.com/2006/05/22/materialism-as-a-proof-for-the-immateriality-of-the-soul/
            http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1075.htm

            What makes one a poisonous gas and the other a flammable metal is the number and arrangement of these parts; i.e., the form.

            What does this have to do with a soul?

            The soul is the subsistent form of the body, just as the number and arrangement of particles is the [inanimate] form of the atom. Ditto for the sphere and the basketball. The relationship of the structure of the atom to the atom is like the relationship of the soul to the body. This is called "reasoning by analogy." But since the analogies were dropped by the College Boards back lo these many years ago, more and more people seem unable to deal with them. Many even try to treat them as equivalences!

            And ever since Descartes, more and more people have an incoherent concept of the soul.

          • David Nickol

            Souls do not get "popped in" any more than spheres get "popped into" basketballs. Soul is the substantial form of a living being.

            It seems to me souls do get "popped in" at some point near the beginning of life, since they get "popped out" at death and continue to function as quasi-persons until the resurrection of the body. All of the saints that Catholics pray to, and expect to intercede with God, are bodiless souls.

            365 The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the "form" of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.

            366The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God - it is not "produced" by the parents - and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.

            How paragraph 366 can be reconciled with paragraph 365 puzzles me. A human soul allegedly "separates from the body" and goes to heaven awaiting the resurrection of the dead. When a basketball is deflated, a sphere doesn't go somewhere. The sphere was never there. A sphere is an idealized abstraction. One of the very important properties of a basketball is that when it is thrown with force against a surface, it loses its sphere-like shape and flattens somewhat, returning to its sphere-like shape and bouncing. It does not become not-a-basketball or "lose its soul" when it is distorted from its sphere-like shape momentarily. Also, it seems to me that since a deflated basketball is still a basketball, its inflated sphere-like shape is not anything equivalent to a "soul."

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            One of the very important properties of a basketball is that when it is thrown with force against a surface, it loses its sphere-like shape and flattens somewhat, returning to its sphere-like shape and bouncing. It does not become not-a-basketball or "lose its soul" when it is distorted from its sphere-like shape momentarily.

            I don't want to interrupt Ye Olde, since he's doing a fantastic job, but I want to point out that the continued existence of the "soul" of the basketball is why it reasserts its spherical shape.

            ("Why" here is in the sense of a final end, not an efficient cause. There's no invisible ectoplasmic thingy forcing the rubber and air to maintain a sphere. When we say the "soul" of the basketball, we're talking about the very real tendency in the air-and-rubber arrangement to become spherical and bounce, etc, etc. Soul = constant-tendency-of-matter-towards-specific-predictable-and-intelligible-behaviors.)

            If the basketball gets so distorted that its matter loses the tendency to return to its spherical shape, the basketball "dies".

            a deflated basketball is still a basketball

            I think you might say that the inflating air is essential to a "living" basketball that exhibits all the properties we expect from basketballs. A deflated basketball lacks a necessary "organ" and so is just the dead body of a basketball.

            Also, I think, Ye Olde, it would clear up a lot of confusion if you would state, right at the beginning of any discussion, that you are ready to believe anything at all that the scientists discover about evolution except their bogus metaphysical extrapolations.

          • David Nickol

            I don't want to interrupt Ye Olde, since he's doing a fantastic job, but I want to point out that the continued existence of the "soul" of the basketball is why it reasserts its spherical shape.

            Ye Olde Statistician said the following:

            If basketballs were alive, sphere would be their soul, but it would be no more subsistent than the souls of petunias or parakeets. . . .

            However, it is worth noting that sphere does remain even if every basketball perishes, if all spherical objects perish.

            Wouldn't you have to say that the "soul" of a basketball (if basketballs were living organisms) is that which makes a basketball a basketball? It is not its spherical shape, since that would mean anything that was spherical would be a basketball. It would also mean when a basketball was bouncing, it would cease to be a basketball, because in the middle of its bounce, a basketball is not spherical. The "soul" of a basketball would have to be something like a spherical shape when no forces were acting on it, and a certain measure of elasticity such that when acted on with a certain amount of force, the basketball loses and then regains its spherical shape, causing it to bounce.

            And where does the sphere remain if all spherical objects are destroyed? Is there a perfect sphere, or a perfect straight line, or a perfect triangle to be found in the universe? It seems to me a sphere is an idealized abstraction with no existence save as an idea in minds. If a sphere remains when all spherical objects are destroyed, does the Statue-of-Liberty-shape remain after the Statue of Liberty and all replicas are destroyed? Did the Statue-of-Liberty-shape exist before the Statue of Liberty was designed and built?

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            The "soul" of a basketball would have to be something like a spherical shape when no forces were acting on it, and a certain measure of elasticity such that when acted on with a certain amount of force, the basketball loses and then regains its spherical shape, causing it to bounce.

            Yeah, I think that would be about right.

            And where does the sphere remain if all spherical objects are destroyed?

            If we're thinking of a physical place, then nowhere. But these properties and forms and tendencies exist in the matter itself, but potentially, not actually.

            Aristotle (whose metaphysics this is) was trying to answer the question: If neither H2 nor O2 are wet, and neither is the fire that gets them to combine, where does this "wetness" come from when they do combine to form H2O? It seemed absurd to say that it was created ex nihilo at that moment, but it also seemed absurd to say it was always there, since it very obviously wasn't. Aristotle suggested that it really was there, but "in potentiality". You might think of it as "the materials were all there, but they hadn't been put together yet". But then the energy broke the atoms apart and got them to combine in the right way and the properties of wetness, etc, which were always there in one sense, were now there "in actuality". They were now "being expressed."

            So, the forms of sphericality or elasticity or whatever always exist in potential in matter. We actualize them, i.e. cause the matter to express them.

          • josh

            Ye Olde's bogus metaphysics is making him look silly. The shape of a basketball is due to the properties of the ball, the air inside it, and the environment around it. All of these are immediate effects (what you would probably call efficient causes) and have no discernible final end. The ball returns to a spherical shape in the air due to reaching an approximate state of equilibrium where the forces acting on the ball's skin are balanced with a spherical form.

            A basketball without air pressure is a deflated basketball. It may not be useful to you in that state, but it hasn't lost a 'soul'. You may choose to ignore language conventions and call a deflated ball 'not a basketball', but that is obviously a choice of language and not a metaphysical statement.

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            Is a car without an engine a car? Is a recently-dead human (who's only dead because a tiny part of his brain broke) a human? These are important metaphysical distinctions. You're assuming that physical continuity of most of a thing's parts constitutes identity. That's just not true.

            Your first paragraph doesn't address the relevant issue, though. Neither I nor Ye Olde would in any way deny that "the shape of a basketball is due to the properties of the ball, the air inside it, and the environment around it." We would affirm that statement completely. What we're pointing out is that the rubber, air, and the environment have an (analogically) unified property you could call "basketball-ness". That basketball-ness is a property of the rubber, air, and environment even when they aren't in the right configuration to express it. That property = soul.

            Now, as Ye Olde points out, the case of the basketball is only analogically like a living thing, since that unified property is only finally unified in our intention. With living things it's another matter. The carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, etc, that makes up a living T-Rex has a unified property you could call "T-Rex-ness." That property of T-Rex-ness is always there wherever you have the right amount of each element, but it only gets "actualized" when you put them in the right configuration. Once you do that, however, the T-Rex-ness maintains itself in act (by metabolism, etc) until something significant breaks and the matter loses its actualized property of T-Rex-ness and becomes merely a decaying hunk of dead flesh with only potential T-Rex-ness.

            That unified property of T-Rex-ness is what we call its "soul."

          • Ben Posin

            Having read through your description of the T-Rex, it looks like we could just replace the word "soul" with "alive." What does "soul" add here?

            EDIT: and what potential does a chunk of dead t-rex have for becoming a new t-rex? Does it have more than a dead triceratops would?

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            Well, as Ye Olde has pointed out, in olden days, "having a soul" meant "being alive", so, yes, I think you're right. But being alive is a pretty significant thing. I recommend Hans Jonas's book, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology as a fascinating meditation on what it means for matter to be alive (a meditation, moreover, that does not attempt to dictate to biologists but thinks hard and carefully about their discoveries).

          • Ben Posin

            If you agree, then let's drop soul from the discussion, as it can only confuse things.

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            Oh, shoot. What were we talking about? ;-)

            Well, the point was that even though humans were alive like animals were alive, there was something extraordinary about the kind of life that humans live, and that extraordinary thing was the property of human life that allows them to abstract totally immaterial forms from matter and combine them, etc, in ways they were never combined before. Therefore, there was an activity of human life that matter by itself could not carry out. Therefore, there was an extra-material property to human life. That extra-material property is not "me", but philosophers seem to think that it implies a necessary survival of some aspect of me even when the rest of me dies. This goes back to Plato, but most human beings take some form of it as a given.

            But rather than say all that, it's easier just to say that human beings have a subsistent soul.

          • Susan

            Well, the point was that even though humans were alive like animals were alive, there was something extraordinary about the kind of life that humans live, and that extraordinary thing was the property of human life that allows them to abstract totally immaterial forms from matter and combine them, etc, in ways they were never combined before.

            You make it sound as though suddenly "humans" showed up out of the blue who could abstract, which seems to ignore the history of life (including apes and hominids) on this planet. Do you honestly believe that there is no level of "abstraction" in non-human brains including and especially those of our fairly recent ancestors with whom we could no longer reproduce even if they still existed? At what point was there a "human" who could suddenly and extraordinarily "abstract"?

            Therefore, there was an activity of human life that matter by itself could not carry out.

            Not so fast. You have not demonstrated this nor even made a logical connection.

            Therefore, there was an extra-material property to human life.

            This does not follow.

            Also, moderns tend to think of "alive" as if it implied only that something was "in operation"

            I'm not quite sure what you mean. I've never heard that phrase used (although, I don't get out much) and I'm not sure what it means. I'm not sure what "moderns" means either as there are seven billion people on this planet and varying trends of thought depending on a lot of factors.

            as though we were just giant factories.

            Lots of things "operate" (depending on what you mean) without being just factories, let alone giant factories. Please clarify your terms.

            Being alive is way, way more than just being in operation.

            Again, depending on what you mean. But nobody says we're "just" giant factories. This seems to be just another version of "mere" matter, "just" chemicals and "only" animals.

            What's the matter with matter?

          • Ben Posin

            I'm going to be a meanie for a second, and not beat about the bush: I think you're trying to have things both ways and seem more reasonable to certain parties here by saying on the one hand that when you're talking about "soul" you're just describing being alive, but on the other hand you're importing all this supposedly philosophical mumbo jumbo as part of the definition of being alive, such as "extra-material" properties and "necessary survival" after death.

            I suspect you see this as some sort of reasonable compromise position between extremes, but it's not. We can talk about life if you want, and how "mere" matter results in animals capable of abstract thought. That's fascinating stuff, but that's a conversation about biology. There's no bridge from there to this "form" nonsense, or any "philosophical" proof of life after death

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            I think you're trying to have things both ways

            Either that or I'm trying to make a subtle distinction which is usually lost on modern man.

            We can talk about [...] how "mere" matter results in animals capable of abstract thought. [... B]ut that's a conversation about biology.

            It starts in biology, I agree. But it quickly becomes a discussion about metaphysics in which biology can only get us so far. I don't know how to prove that the human soul has this immaterial power. I'm just learning that side of it, myself. For the proof of that, see Ye Olde's arguments and links and talk to a more knowledgeable Thomist.

            For myself, St Thomas has been pretty astonishingly right about enough that I'm willing to go with him even if I don't quite understand the argument, yet. Just like I'm willing to go with the evolutionary biologists even though I don't understand all the biology, yet, and still occasionally get my ass kicked by Intelligent Design fruitcakes. The evolutionists have been right about enough stuff that they've shown me, and what they describe makes enough sense, that I trust them.

          • josh

            Jon, I don't want you to get taken in by Thomist fruitcakes either, even if you feel like Ye Olde could kick your ass in an argument. What exactly has St. Thomas been astonishingly right about, if I may ask? From what I can see, if not for his influence in the Catholic church, he would probably be a footnote in the history of thought.

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            Oh, golly. What has St Thomas been right about?

            Principles of interpretation of parts of the Bible like Genesis. The relationship of God to his creation. Animals before the fall were predatory. Laziness is an expression of fear (his psychology is fascinating). His account of virtue in general. The stuff we're discussion now (not the immortal soul issue, but everything else). The relationship of justice and tradition. (I'm following Alasdair MacIntyre, here, who is a Thomist and a brilliant modern philosopher.) That the soul is not a body (i.e. no such thing as ectoplasm). That there are, ultimately, only two arguments against the existence of God. The existence of Natural Law. There are tons more. (See his Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles for several metric tons of significant philosophy.)

            I didn't grow up a Catholic or a Thomist. I grew up Evangelical. My family was also old-earth special creationists, and it wasn't until I found Thomas (in my early twenties) that I found the way to reconcile my faith with the Darwinism that was making so much sense. It's Thomas that allows me to consistently and rationally understand Christianity and creation without giving in to the bogus claims of Intelligent Design. Thomas makes it easy for me to be an intellectually fulfilled theist.

            Sorry for the testimony. I honestly think this stuff because it makes sense to me and is able to integrate all I know and love of science with all I know and love of philosophy with all I know and love of Jesus Christ.

          • josh

            "Oh, golly. What has St Thomas been right about?
            ..."

            Okay, so, nothing you can actually demonstrate and a lot of bad philosophy. I'm glad you got out of the anti-evolutionist mindset. I hope that some day you'll get out of the Thomist one as well. I realize it seems like a slick and fulfilling package to some but it's really no different in kind than the practiced answers of flood geologists or intelligent design hawkers. I'm afraid your version of Christianity is equally irrational. If you want to rationally understand it, then you'll have to take seriously the proposition that it isn't remotely true.

            Basically, you've left a philosophy 3000 years out of date for one 800 years out of date. I encourage you not to stop there.

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            Seriousy? Your assumption that the age of a philosophy is a significant indication of its truth is laughable. The real insights of Newtonian physics don't get less insightful as the years pass, and their ability to be folded into a higher-level understanding of physics like Relativity is an indication of their essential truth, not their falsity.

            Modern science sits quite comfortably within Thomism. In fact, it's you who don't know what to do with modern science, since it seems to keep telling you things like "you have no free will" and "there is no end or purpose to life" and "there is no such thing as evil", things that, from the rest of your experience, you know damn well are false. Meanwhile I never once, in all my reading or experience, have had to fear either Godwin or Darwin.

            You, sir, are living an incoherent life with an incoherent philosophy. Don't feel bad. Most people do. I understand that you can't say what you say in the laboratory to your girlfriend or your mom. That's just human. But it doesn't need to be that way.

          • josh

            "Your assumption that the age of a philosophy is a significant indication of its truth is laughable."

            I made no such assumption. It is a simple observation that Aquinas and Aristotle are hopelessly outdated. I was being polite in attributing their errors to the ignorance of their times.

            I'm afraid you don't understand modern science. Newtonian physics is a useful approximation, not at essential truth. Some of its assumptions are false, and Relativity is an indication of that. Extrapolations based on assuming Newtonian treatments are absolute are prone to failure, just as the belief that you can discern both the existence and attributes of God based in Aristotelian misconceptions is bound to fail.

            "In fact, it's you who don't know what to do with modern science, since it seems to keep telling you things like "you have no free will" and "there is no end or purpose to life" and "there is no such thing as evil", things that, from the rest of your experience, you know damn well are false."

            We could quibble about your terms, but no, I don't 'know damn well' that the conclusions of a rational approach to the world are false. My understanding of the world comports quite well with my experience and without the contradictions and flim-flammery of religion.

            "Meanwhile I never once, in all my reading or experience, have had to fear either Godwin or Darwin."

            You just told me that you had to struggle to reconcile your interest in Darwin with your creationist upbringing. You don't need to be afraid, but there remain irresolvable conflicts between your faith and a rational approach to the world, whether you are aware of them or not.

            "If you think like this, then you, sir, are living an incoherent life with an incoherent philosophy."

            You are welcome to point out something incoherent in my philosophy, which I haven't outlined for you here. But this kind of bluster isn't exactly convincing.

            "I understand that you can't say what you say in the laboratory to your girlfriend or your mom."

            This is weirdly presumptuous of you. What can't I say?

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            All right. You started this pissing contest with your adolescent dismissal of philosophers whom you don't even begin to understand, so I'm not going to participate. If you want to claim victory, go ahead. But serious intellects do not dismiss Aquinas as a "footnote in history". Serious human beings do not deny free will and call it "coherence". Serious philosophers do not demand a rigorous demonstration of Thomistic thought in a comment box. I'm ready to try to answer anyone's questions about Thomistic metaphysics, but your interest in that subject is like the interest of a creationist in biology: you study, not to understand, but to mock what you do not.

          • cminca

            In the run up to the Iraq war Cheney's office leaked a false "news" story to the NYT--who printed it. Cheney then went on the Sunday morning news shows and repeated the lies, using the NYT as the "proof".
            Who has told the world, for centuries, that Aquinas is a serious philosopher--Catholics. And what do they use as proof of the veracity of their philosophical positions? Aquinas.
            The exact same game that Cheney pulled.

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            Don't take my word for it. Talk to the philosophy departments of all the major non-Catholic universities.

          • cminca

            The fact that the CC has, for centuries, been promoting Aquinas as a serious philosopher does, by its very nature, indicate that Aquinas would be considered a "serious" philosopher even if he wasn't considered "right".
            Teaching Western philosophy without teaching Aquinas would be like teaching psychology without teaching Freud.
            Doesn't mean that Freud was correct about everything or anything. It just means that he was a significant milestone and, for quite some time, the cornerstone of how we view the brain, the conscious, and the unconscious.

          • josh

            I didn't see your replies here until today, so apologies for this late comment. But I'm not looking to win a pissing contest, I've offered to actually discuss these things in detail. What I won't do is start from the assumption that Thomistic reasoning is correct and we just need you or someone else to define things into coherence for us. If you can't handle the criticism then it's your choice to leave the conversation. If you can't countenance the problems with 'free will' then I'd suggest you aren't prepared to take the topic seriously.

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            what potential does a chunk of dead t-rex have for becoming a new t-rex? Does it have more than a dead triceratops would?

            Assuming the dead triceratops was made out of the same types, proportions, and amounts of matter, it seems to me that they would have the exact same potential.

          • David Nickol

            I have a question. If living things have souls, does a peach tree have a soul? And when the peach tree is bearing fruit, do individual peaches (which are still living, I assume, for a while after you pick them) also have souls? And do peach pits, which of course are alive and can grow into new peaches, also have souls? And does the peach tree have a peach-tree souls, the peach have a peach-soul, and the peach pit have a peach-pit soul, or is there one identical soul for each of the three?

            Does a butterfly larva (caterpillar) have a caterpillar soul which it trades in for a butterfly soul when it metamorphizes from a caterpillar to a butterfly?

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            Soul = inherent tendency in matter - while in a particular configuration - to arrange itself so as to develop as a whole towards particular intelligible ends

            -A peach tree has a peach-tree soul.

            -Individual peaches, while in development, are part of the tree. Once fertilized and wholly developed, they are a complete organism (I believe) and so would have peach-tree souls.

            -Peach pits have peach-tree souls. (They're not essentially different from peaches. The flesh of a peach is accidental to it, since it's not necessary for the development of it into the kind of thing it develops into.)

            -The caterpillar has the soul of the organism, as does the butterfly: i.e. they both have the soul of Danaus plexippus, not of a particular shape that the Monarch butterfly takes during the course of its lifetime.

          • josh

            Thanks for replying Jon W:

            "Is a car without an engine a car? Is a recently-dead human (who's only dead because a tiny part of his brain broke) a human? These are important metaphysical distinctions." They seem to be definitional distinctions. If I call an engine-less car a car and you call it a chassis, what, other than convention, could determine that one of us is right and the other wrong?

            "What we're pointing out is that the rubber, air, and the environment have an (analogically) unified property you could call "basketball-ness". That basketball-ness is a property of the rubber, air, and environment even when they aren't in the right configuration to express it." What do you mean by 'analogically unifying'? The air, rubber, etc. are in an arrangement that we could call basketball-like. What does it mean to say that they have this property of basketball-ness when they aren't in the right configuration. If I change the arrangement of air and rubber I can get something less and less basketball-like, until at some point I have something I wouldn't call a basketball. But this shows that there isn't a discrete point when the 'basketball-ness' leaves the arrangement. (Nor is there an ideal basketball towards which the arrangement aims.)

            "That property of T-Rex-ness is always there wherever you have the right amount of each element, but it only gets "actualized" when you put them in the right configuration."

            I agree that we need the pieces in the (workably) right configuration to call it a T-Rex. So what sense does it make to say that the un-T-Rex-like arrangement has 'T-Rex-ness'? The dead T-Rex is no less actual than an alive one, nor is it less unified. It is like a stone that has rolled to the bottom of a hill. The relation of the parts has changed (hill to stone in this example), but 'rolling-ness' hasn't fled the stone, and it's definitely not floating around out there as an entity unto itself.

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            The reason I said "analogical unity" regarding the basketball was that both the basketball and the car are artifacts. They're not living things, so the thing that makes them what they are is, in the end, our intention. So, given that fact, you're right: these are definitional distinctions. However, assuming that you and I have the same basic definition (i.e. intent) of "car", we could agree that a car without its pistons isn't really a car. It's a two-ton paperweight, because it doesn't fulfill the ends that we've agreed make up a car. If the bad guys are chasing us, and I only have time to grab one key from the rack, and I grab the key to the car with no pistons, you're going to be pissed at me.

            But it's different with living things. The matter that makes them up has a natural, inherent, tendency to organize itself to pursue particular ends, and those ends aren't assigned by me or you or anyone: they're inherent in the matter itself, once you get it into this configuration. So that matter has a natural unity.

            The dead T-Rex is no less actual than an alive one, nor is it less unified.

            I disagree. The dead T-Rex is no longer expressing T-Rex-ness. It doesn't eat, copulate, or chase Jeeps. A dead T-Rex is only expressing decaying-meat-ness. Furthermore, cut a (smallish) gash in a living T-Rex, and the unity of the organism is strong enough that it reasserts itself across the gash and re-unifies the flesh. Cut a gash (no matter how small) in a dead T-Rex (no matter how un-decayed), and that matter stays cut apart.

            The relation of the parts has changed (hill to stone in this example), but 'rolling-ness' hasn't fled the stone, and it's definitely not floating around out there as an entity unto itself.

            I hope I haven't given the impression that I think the soul of an animal or the form of any matter is an "entity unto itself" "floating around somewhere". I think these things are real, but I don't think they exist as quasi-physical things. I suspect that when you (or others) call these things "abstractions", I disagree mostly because I think of an abstraction as a kind of "model in my mind", and that doesn't get to the reality of the T-Rex-ness that is still lurking in the matter of the universe, waiting for evolution (or Henry Wu) to find a way to re-express it.

          • josh

            Again, sorry for the late reply.

            "But it's different with living things. The matter that makes them up has a natural, inherent, tendency to organize itself to pursue particular ends, and those ends aren't assigned by me or you or anyone: they're inherent in the matter itself, once you get it into this configuration. So that matter has a natural unity."

            Here we have to parse out a lot of things. What is 'natural', what is 'tendency', what is 'inherent' (in what?), what are 'particular ends'? These are all very vague and unspecific terms. The car will maintain it's shape for a long time, although rust will eventually win. Crystals have a tendency to self-organize, are they living? In fact, there is a sense in which everything does, although not everything gives us the appearance of repeated patterns. Are they 'pursuing ends'? I would say they have a predictable outcome (in the short term anyhow), but this is not the same thing as an end, unless one concedes that telos understood this way is superfluous.

            Living matter tends to maintain homeostasis... up until the point where it doesn't. So does it's end switch from 'trying to stay alive' to 'trying to rot'? This seems useless, particularly when we have a much better way of thinking about things. I can set up all sorts of non-living systems (the basketball being one) that will return to an equilibrium state when perturbed (for sufficiently small perturbations). Homeostasis is just a very complicated example of this kind of thing.

            In the modern view, all matter (or whatever terms we quantify things in, modern physics uses fields) is subject to certain rules. These aren't tendencies, but rules that describe testable relations between the state of the field at one point and the state at another (in space-time but we might be more abstract). That gives you predictability. So under certain conditions you get certain results, which gives us these 'tend toward equilibrium' scenarios among others. But the thing is, in this view, 'unity' isn't a causal thing that is trying to 'reassert' itself. It is a consequence of our situation, and the rules, if we know them well enough, say both when we will move toward the 'unified' thing and when it will move towards dissolution. 'Life' and 'death' aren't discrete metaphysical states, but a system in one type of equilibrium quickly transitioning to another, like a spinning top when it begins to lean enough that it's edge touches the ground. It's a striking change to be sure, but not an unphysical one. Which brings us back to the point that we can make useful definitions for everyday use, but those definitions don't determine reality itself, and we will often run into places where our definition is inadequate and non-fundamental. A 'living thing' is a localized effect, sort of like an eddy in a river. But the eddy is continuous with the river and on a fine enough scale it can't be discussed as a unified whole.

            "I hope I haven't given the impression that I think the soul of an animal or the form of any matter is an "entity unto itself" "floating around somewhere"."

            I sense that you are making a preemptive exception here for the 'rational soul' of man? But putting that aside, 'lurking in the universe' doesn't seem functionally different from 'floating around somewhere'. Now, we can regard the universe as a whole, including time and say that the T-Rex is always part of the universe. ('Always' isn't really a good term but I'm using it in the always-was-gonna-be/always-will-have-been sense.) But its a localized phenomenon again. From our perspective of ignorance about the future (or distant space), we can say that given the rules of physics it seems there potentially could be an equivalent T-Rex somewhen. But there might not be, so again I don't think it makes sense to speak of T-Rex-ness hanging around after the T-Rex's departure. The idea may linger in our minds, just as footprints may linger in petrified mud, but that requires the minds or the mud, and moreover shouldn't be identified with a sort of mind-independent essence of Rex.

  • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

    Maheresque skeptics, living in the delusional fear that millions of Christians credulously believe the Virgin appears regularly on a grilled cheese sandwiches

    Is that delusional? There are over 2 billion Christians in the world. If less than 0.1% of them -- less than 1 in a thousand -- believe such a thing, then this "delusion" is nothing of the sort, and the appellation is nothing but an unnecessary insult on Mark Shea's point.

    Is there any reason to think 0.1% might believe such a thing? Gallup tells us that 46% of Americans completely disbelieve evolution (even God-guided evolution), thinking that God created humans in our present form. Personally, if I had to choose, I'd say I find the grilled-cheese belief to be marginally more credible.

    That leads to a broader point: Why do the Catholic authors here regard some miracles as completely credible, while others are apparently so ludicrous that atheists must be delusional if we think some folks might believe in them? What makes Fatima so much less ridiculous than a grilled cheese sandwich?

    Such distinctions, offered without reason, make the argument seem arbitrary rather than based in reason.

    • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

      This last is a good point, and while I know there is a fundamental difference between the two, I'm tempted to say "you know it when you see it". I could say the one was witnessed as it happened by at least thousands of people, and the other can very easily be chalked up to coincidence.

      It's definitely, however, a case by case basis that miracles need to be approached with.

    • picklefactory

      What makes Fatima so much less ridiculous than a grilled cheese sandwich?

      Why, the argument from authority, of course.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Hmm. Maybe because you don't carry on an extended conversation with a grilled cheese sandwich?

      • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

        I don't follow.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          The question was "What makes Fatima so much less ridiculous than a grilled cheese sandwich?"

          • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

            Yes, Ye Olde, I understand that this was an answer to my question. I just don't understand howit is an answer to my question.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            I think one of you is talking about the Day the Sun Danced, and the other about the Marian apparitions to the children, when they conversed with Mary.

            Maybe that helps clear things up a little?

          • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

            A little. I still need more dots connected.

    • BrianKillian

      You really can't see any reason why someone would think Fatima was more credible than seeing things in a grilled cheese?

      Like maybe it's incredibly easy to imagine seeing things in the ambiguous shapes of a cloud or burnt toast, but incredibly difficult for hundreds of people to collectively imagine seeing something in the sky at the same time?

      Is this like the insult that Christians' belief in God is no different than believing in fairy tales?

      Just because the Church believes in the possibility of there being *some* miracles, doesn't mean it's going to act irrationally and stupidly about those things it thinks *may* be miracles.

      That the Church's approach to miracles *isn't* that of claiming that everything that looks like a face on a piece of toast is a miracle is why it subjects purported miracles to doctors and scientists to find natural explanations before even considering something a miracle.

      Indeed, every time the Church canonizes someone, it requires at least two documented cases of miracles that were examined by disinterested people like doctors - even skeptic and agnostic ones.

      And yet the Church continues to canonize people over and over and over again.

      • Andre Boillot

        "Indeed, every time the Church canonizes someone, it requires at least two documented cases of miracles that were examined by disinterested people like doctors - even skeptic and agnostic ones."

        Does the church publish these investigations for review?

        • BrianKillian

          I don't know if they publish them.

      • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

        Brian, you misunderstand me, probably because I wasn't clear in how I phrased it. It has nothing to do with whether something is seen by 10 people or 10,000, or whether something is easier or harder to explain as a natural phenomenon.

        Rather, Mark Shea seems to be mocking the notion that the Virgin Mary would choose to appear on a grilled cheese sandwich (specifically, by mocking atheists who believe there are Christians who think this could happen).

        My question is: Why? Why is the Virgin Mary appearing on a grilled cheese sandwich any more ridiculous (self-evidently so, Shea seems to imply) than the sun dancing?

        • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

          I think you're right. There isn't anything more especially ridiculous. The point that Shea was trying to make is that the church doesn't take the grilled-cheese sandwich stories very seriously, so people like Maher who seem to assume that the church is basing its faith on things like that are just wrong. The things the church does base its faith on, like, above all, the death and resurrection of Christ, are not as vague and insubstantial as an outline on a grilled-cheese sandwich.

      • David Nickol

        Indeed, every time the Church canonizes someone, it requires at least two documented cases of miracles that were examined by disinterested people like doctors - even skeptic and agnostic ones.

        As I pointed out elsewhere, the doctors who examine case for the Church to decide whether they are miraculous cures or not are Catholics. According to the source I am relying on (Making Saints by Kenneth L. Woodward), the doctors are not grilled about their beliefs and vetted as "orthodox" Catholics, but nevertheless they are Catholics. So if they are skeptics and agnostics, they are Catholic skeptics and agnostics.

  • Andre Boillot

    Oh sure, they may talk a good game about their desire for “scientific proof”, as Émile Zola did when he said he just wanted to see a cut finger dipped in Lourdes water and healed. But when confronted with a miracle (as Zola was by the miraculous healing of a tubercular woman whose half-destroyed face was healed after a bath at Lourdes) the dogmatic skeptic simply declares, as Zola did, “Were I to see all the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle.”

    If you're going to characterize skeptics as spitting in the face of scientific proof, why not actually present such a case, instead of a vague 19th century account of a miraculous cure. We're not even told the name of the woman cured, let alone a before/after photograph, or presented with any sort of scientific investigation at all.

    • Danny Getchell

      Speaking for myself, if James Randi or Harry Houdini had published a paper showing that they had thoroughly investigated a faith cure which took place in their presence and that they found no sign of trickery, I would give the claims of the supernatural very serious consideration.

      • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

        Especially if Houdini publishes it!

        • Dave P.

          The Church, in investigating miracles, actually makes sure that some of the investigating authorities are non-Catholic, or even non-Christian, in order to keep objectivity.

          • Andre Boillot

            Does it also make all the data available to the public for review?

          • Raphael

            Healthcare privacy laws would prevent that.

          • Andre Boillot

            Quite convenient wouldn't you say? I'm not sure exactly how privacy laws work in various countries, but I would assume that people could waive these rights if they wanted to. In the mean time, apparently it's not a breach to be told the names of the cured, and what diseases they had. It seems that privacy is only a concern when it comes to skeptics, not so much when it comes to publicity.

          • Raphael

            How many names of the cured do you know?

          • Andre Boillot

            Two from this thread alone ;)

          • David Nickol

            Unfortunately, this is false.

            When the Catholic Church wants to judge whether a miracle has occurred or not, a five-member panel is assembled from the Vatican's Consulta Medica, a group of sixty or more Italian physicians from all specialties. They are all men and all Catholics. In addition, they do not make a judgment as to whether a miracle has occurred. The panel (actually, a minimum of 3 out of 5 members) confirm that a "miraculous" cure is complete and unexplained by any medical or scientific reason. Another group (not doctors) take the findings of the physicians and decide whether the cure was miraculous.

            This information is taken mainly from the section "The Consulta Medica" beginning on page 194 of Making Saints by Kenneth L. Woodward, which can be found on Google Books, although I did check other sources.

          • Geena Safire

            They are all men...

            ...because a penis is required for proper evaluation of evidence.

          • Andre Boillot

            Good thing some guy was kind enough to let you know the facts ;)

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            David, I believe you've been misinformed: the medical experts are *not* only from Italy (they're from around the world) and they are *not* all Catholic (the teams typically include non-Catholic doctors, even atheists). That's not to mention the *theological* panel which often includes an appointed critic who does not (and often *is* not) a Catholic. Most famously, the English atheist Christopher Hitchens served this role during Mother Teresa's beatification process.

          • David Nickol

            David, I believe you've been misinformed . . .

            I should make it clear that I am talking about the official process for beatification and canonization that takes place in the Vatican. To be sure, if someone in, say, the United States claims that he prayed to be cured to a candidate for canonization and he believes the candidate for canonization interceded for him and is responsible for a miraculous cure, that person may deal with local authorities first and perhaps a series of lesser authorities on his way to the Vatican.

            But in the official investigation by the Vatican into whether there has been a miracle that should count toward a beatification or a canonization,the procedure is as I have described it. A panel of five Catholic doctors is convened, two of them independently review everything pertaining to the case and write separate reports. Those reports then become the basis for a decision by the entire panel. The five doctors vote not on whether a miracle occurred or not, but on whether the alleged miraculous recovery is inexplicable.

            I am not criticizing the process. I am more or less defending it. But the doctors are Catholic Italian Men. It would be foolish to put a confirmed skeptic on such a panel, since he or she would conclude that there was no cure that was inexplicable in principle. He or she would conclude that the person recovered naturally, even if medical science couldn't explain why.

            That's not to mention the *theological* panel which often includes an appointed critic who does not (and often *is* not) a Catholic.

            Can you document that? The part about an appointed critic on the panel?

            The role of Devil's Advocate was abolished by Pope John Paul II in 1983. The Devil's Advocate was a canon lawyer, and so obviously a Catholic.

            As I understand it, Christopher Hitchens was not on any panel. He was asked to testify in front of the panel who was deciding whether Mother Teresa should be beatified. At least one other critic testified as well. He did not get a vote!

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            David, thanks for the clarification. When you suggested that no non-Catholic medical practicioners were involved "when the Catholic Church wants to judge whether a miracle has occurred or not", I thought you were referring to the entire process. But after reading your clarification, it seems you were only referring to the final steps handled by the Holy See.

            It seems we agree that in *every* case, non-Catholic medical practitioners are involved in determining whether a particular case has a natural explanation.

            That said, I'm still not aware of any requirement that the Vatican panel medical examiners be either Italian or men, as you've repeatedly proposed. Can you show me where this is required? For convenience sake, I suppose many are from Italy, but I don't believe that's a requirement. And I see no reason why they would have to be men.

            PS. I misspoke when I said that non-Catholic critics are appointed on a *panel* to review each case, but they are nevertheless regularly appointed--as part of the "team" if you want to use that language--to review the miraculous claims. This applies to the Christopher Hitchens example.

          • David Nickol

            That said, I'm still not aware of any requirement that the Vatican panel
            medical examiners be either Italian or men, as you've repeatedly
            proposed. Can you show me where this is required?

            The following is from page 194 of Making Saints: How The Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes A Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why, by Kenneth L. Woodward. It can be looked up on Google Books.

            The Consulta Medica

            Every other week from mid-October through mid-July, a panel of five physicians meet in a parlor like room at the congregation to examine two potential miracles. The panels are drawn from a pool of more than sixty physicians resident in Rome who constitute the congregation’s Consulta Medica. To judge by their professional achievements and reputations, the physicians appear to be more distinguished in medicine than the theological consultants are in theology. More than half of them are professors or department heads at one of Rome’s medical schools; the rest are, with a few exceptions, directors of hospitals. Collectively, the Consulta Medica represents all medical specialties from surgery to tropical diseases. All members are Italian, all are men, and all are Roman Catholic—though, this being Italy, I was assured that no member is questioned regarding the regularity of his religious practices. Medical competence is what counts.

            An invitation to join the Consulta is considered an honor among Roman Catholic doctors, rather like being tapped for the Knights of Malta. Invitees are not told who suggested them for membership, and as a rule the names of the medical consultants are not publicized outside the Vatican. . . . .

            but they are nevertheless regularly appointed--as part of the "team" if you want to use that language--to review the miraculous claims.

            I would say Christopher Hitchens and others are invited to testify, which is quite different from being appointed to a team. I find it impossible to believe that any Vatican panel would solicit the opinion of Christopher Hitchens as to whether or not the miracle attributed to her was genuine! Surely he was invited because of his book about her and his other public writings and statements critical of her. What Vatican panel in its right mind would solicit the opinion of an atheist with a very low opinion of Mother Teresa as to whether a miracle attributed to her was genuine?

    • Geena Safire

      The post-healing tubercular woman Zola met was Marie LeMarchand, in about 1894.

      Zola only saw LaMarchand after the reputed cure, not before, and there were apparently no 'before' photos available. What is in any way surprising about Zola being skeptical in this situation?

      ------------------------------------------------

      Knight: What makes you think she is a witch?
      Peasant (normal looking): She turned me into a NEWT!
      Knight: She turned you into a newt?
      Peasant (realizing his predicament): I got better!

    • Raphael

      Her name was Marie Lemarchand. From the Miracle Hunter website:

      Born in1874, in Caen. Cured in her 19th year.

      These two cases were closely connected:.. Both of them were sick pilgrims in the Paris section of the National Pilgrimage.

      ... Both were cured on successive days, 20th., and 21st. August 1892. Also, as in the preceding case, they were among the cures declared miraculous by Mgr Amette, Archbishop of Paris, in his Canonical judgement of 6/6/1908.

      Both suffered from severe pulmonary tuberculosis (Koch's bacillus + ) for two years, and had reached the terminal stages of this disease.

      Marie LEBRANCHU weighed less than 60 lbs., when she came out of the Baths... cured.

      Marie LEMARCHAND had deep tuberculous ulcerated areas on her face, quite resistant to all treatment, and very repulsive.

      Lastly, both had the chance to meet M. Emile Zola at the Medical Bureau of Verifications where he had been allowed in, perhaps invited!

      In one of his books, our "novelist", altered the real facts. Having depicted as an ill person the rather unenviable lot of Marie LEBRANCHU, using the name of La Grivotte, he made her die on the train home! Yet, she lived in perfect health until 1920!

      As for the other, Marie LEMARCHAND-- "Elisa Rouquet", for E. Zola...--she got married and had 8 children. She never had a relapse and died long after her cure was declared miraculous.

      • Andre Boillot

        As was noted elsewhere, Mr. Zola saw them only after they were 'miraculously' healed. And, as I note, we have no photographs, let alone a medical/scientific investigation to rely on.

        • Raphael

          Mr. Zola actually saw Marie Lemarchand before and after her miraculous cure. He described her face as “a frightful distorted mass of matter and oozing blood" due to her lupus.

          • Andre Boillot

            You know what would be nice when confronted with these differing accounts? Hard evidence.

  • Danny Getchell

    Mark, when you see an event that your knowledge of how the universe works cannot explain, how do you determine whether to conclude:
    - "This is an event whose underlying mechanics I do not understand"
    or
    - "This is an event resulting from supernatural intervention by God"

    • Vasco Gama

      Danny,

      There are a variety of day to day occurences where I find events that my knowledge "of how the universe works cannot explain", nothing really surprising, so I assume that

      - "This is an event whose underlying mechanics I do not understand"

      It may well be that I don't so often realize events of the sort of those that I could conclude that

      - "This is an event resulting from supernatural intervention by God"

      (unless the case of my own conversion back to Catholicism, which is the only one I would address to the "supernatural intervention from God", but appart from that I have to say that no other comes to my mind).

    • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

      Well, as I mentioned above, it's a case-by-case thing, and there's an investigation and it's all very official through the Magesterium. Especially these days, the Church frowns strongly on popularly declared miracles, and investigates all miraculous claims very closely.

      In a way, it's become easier for the Church to dismiss miraculous claims, which I think everyone here can agree is a good thing. Having a better grasp of the mechanics of the world makes it easy to see how something could have occurred naturally, even if we're not sure exactly how.

      But when, say, cancer disappears overnight from a body, we don't even have a hint of the natural mechanics that could make that happen. It should be impossible, were it to happen (I have no specific example in mind, just using it in the general). So that's a place to start.

      Again, though, there are levels of certainty the Church will stamp on a miraculous event. It might say "this didn't happen", "this may or may not have happened, but believing it won't harm your faith", or "this certainly happened". To put it simply, of course.

      • Danny Getchell

        Daniel,

        I did not ask how it would be investigated by the hierarchy. Rather, I asked how you would interpret a Fatima-like event if it occurred in your presence.

        • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

          In a similar way. Do you mean would I make a snap-decision right then and there? Maybe. Would I think it about it after the fact, and look for any other possible explanation? Yes.

      • Geena Safire

        But when, say, cancer disappears overnight from a body...

        You might want to see my comment regarding the surprisingly common incidence of spontaneous remission of cancers.

        Usually, in "miraculous" healings, the healings occur over a short period of time, or between two doctor's visits, not literally 'overnight.'

        (One might better be cautious, as Shea suggests in this article, that we not necessarily interpret a story that seems literal as literal..)

        • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

          You may want to see my response to it ;)

          • Geena Safire

            Perhaps I would. And so I shall.

      • Andre Boillot

        But when, say, cancer disappears overnight from a body, we don't even have a hint of the natural mechanics that could make that happen. It should be impossible, were it to happen (I have no specific example in mind, just using it in the general). So that's a place to start.

        I think that, in cases where this would be well documented by disinterested parties, the skeptic would have something to ponder. I would just point out that we don't have a lot of these sorts of examples. It's not very helpful that the OP uses a +100 year-old example of a seemingly undocumented instantaneous cure of face-being-melted as the sort of thing that skeptics refuse to grapple with. The skeptic ends up wondering why we just don't see this sort of thing anymore.

        • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

          I agree, but we do it see every now and then. Spontaneous remission is a thing, and there is no known medical or biological cause. See Geena's post a little further down, she links to the article.

          • Andre Boillot

            I think some of what we're getting into here is just illustrating a lack of understanding of things like cancer. Growing up, we were told that cancer is not something you can "catch" from somebody with cancer. Then things like HPV and DFTD come around and challenge our notions of what's going on with cancer.

            Now, none of this is to say that you can rule-out miracles. If you're so inclined, even though we might one day discover perfectly 'natural' explanations for things like spontaneous remission or the 'Miracle of the Sun', we'd always be left wondering why now/him/her? I'm just saying that these things are coming after a long series of more fantastical claims, and it's usually the case that we find very little good documentation of things like re-grown limbs or faces.

            [Seriously, that DFTD thing is insane and gives me the willies: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil_facial_tumour_disease ; http://www.radiolab.org/story/update-famous-tumors/ ]

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            I get that, I do (about the lack of understanding). But the most important miracle, is, to appropriate Hume, the most notorious of skeptics, that people believe in the miracle at all.

            By which I mean, faith is a gift from God, and miracles that bring about faith are important more so for the faith conferred/received than for the miracle itself. A miracle will never be the only reason someone converts, because that's simply a God of the Gaps, a God of For Now. It's no real conversion, no real turning of the heart towards God.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            Also, looked up the DFTD thing, and am seriously considering using my mod powers to punish you for putting that into my imagination.

          • Andre Boillot

            Cancer is the worst. Listing to the Radiolab podcast where they detail the investigation is even worse.

          • Geena Safire

            Poor little devils. Literally.

            (In the literal sense of literally in this article. Literally.)

          • Susan

            There is spontaneous remission in lab rats too. Is this a miracle?

            What percentage of documented cases in humans involved someone praying or going to a miracle site for a cure?

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            I couldn't tell you, honestly.

          • David Nickol

            There is spontaneous remission in lab rats too. Is this a miracle?

            I had often wondered about spontaneous remissions, and it seems the fact that some diseases, even serious ones, inexplicably vanish for no known reason is taken into account. According to Making Saints by Kenneth L. Woodward, when trying to verify a miraculous cure,

            Cancers such as lymphoma, renal cell cancer, skin cancer, and cancer of the breast which have a high statistical rate of natural remission are excluded. So are all mental disorders, since the concept of cure in mental disorders is not easily defined. In the end, each physician on the full panel [of five] votes one of two ways on the cure: "natural" or "inexplicable." The congregation prefers unanimity, but as any patient who has ever sought a second or third opinion can attest, getting agreement from five physicians, not to mention five specialists, is exceedingly difficult. Thus a simple majority is usually all that is necessary to see a miracle through.

            It is only for this discussion that I am looking into how the Catholic Church decides whether or not a miracle has occurred, but it seems the process is not slipshod. Disease that are known to have statistically significant rates of spontaneous remission are not considered. All physicians involved are Catholic, but it would be strange to assemble a panel of doctors who believed in principle that all recoveries, no matter how astonishing, were in principle explicable. The doctors chosen tend to be quite distinguished, and they do not rubber stamp purported miracles.

          • Geena Safire

            [G]etting agreement from five physicians, not to mention five specialists, is exceedingly difficult.

            It should also be noted that sometimes the initial diagnosis was incorrect, so the 'remission' was due to that condition not actually being present in the first place.

          • David Nickol

            It should also be noted that sometimes the initial diagnosis was incorrect, so the 'remission' was due to that condition not actually being present in the first place.

            True, but the panel of doctors acting on behalf of the Vatican reviews all medical records pertaining to each case. One of the things they would definitely try to decide was whether the original diagnosis was correct.

            I have a great many problems with the idea of medical miracles, especially ones that are "required" for canonization. Those pushing for the canonization of a particular saint are often very emotionally invested in coming up with a miracle. Reading about the alleged miracle experienced by Monica Basra and used in the canonization of Mother Teresa is enough to make anyone skeptical of the whole process. Nevertheless, for those who believe miracles are possible, based on what I have read, it seems to me the process is reasonably designed and fairly rigorous.

          • Susan

            It is only for this discussion that I am looking into how the Catholic Church decides whether or not a miracle has occurred, but it seems the process is not slipshod

            I appreciate your response, David. Thank you. It sounds reasonable enough.

            Here is an example of what is possibly "slipshod" miracle documentation.

            In 2002, the Vatican recognised as a miracle the healing of a tumor in the abdomen of an Indian woman, Monica Besra, after the application of a locket containing Mother Teresa's picture. Besra said that a beam of light emanated from the picture, curing the cancerous tumor. Critics—including some of Besra's medical staff and, initially, Besra's husband—said that conventional medical treatment had eradicated the tumor.[105] Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, who told The New York Times he had treated Besra, said that the cyst was not cancer at all but a cyst caused by tuberculosis. He said, "It was not a miracle.... She took medicines for nine months to one year."[106] According to Besra's husband, "My wife was cured by the doctors and not by any miracle."[107]

            An opposing perspective of the claim is that Besra's medical records contain sonograms, prescriptions, and physicians' notes that could prove whether the cure was a miracle or not. Besra has claimed that Sister Betta of the Missionaries of Charity is holding them. The publication has received a "no comments" statement from Sister Betta. The officials at the Balurghat Hospital where Besra was seeking medical treatment have claimed that they are being pressured by the Catholic order to declare the cure a miracle.

            The details surrounding this "miracle" seem a little fishy. Perhaps there are catholics here who can provide more information, though.

          • David Nickol

            The details surrounding this "miracle" seem a little fishy.

            Saying the whole affair was a little fishy is an understatement I would put in the same category as saying Jaws was a movie about a little fish!

          • Geena Safire

            (FYI, Daniel, to link to a comment (for this article or another SN article): (1) Position your mouse cursor over the word Share at the bottom of the comment until the cursor arrow turns into a hand. Three icons will appear for Twitter, Facebook, and Link (a chain link). (2) Without clicking, move the cursor to the right, hovering over the Link icon. (3) Right-click on the Link icon and choices will appear. (4) Click on "Copy Link Location." (5) Paste this Link Location within the quotes of the HTML anchor tag I describe elsewhere in this comment stream. (6) Important hint when pasting a Link Location: sometimes your browser will insert a space after the opening quotation mark and/or before the closing quotation mark, so check for these before hitting Post.)

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            Ok, this is the one bit of advice I actually needed...

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Why cannot it be both? Did Ophelia drown herself because she was distraught over her treatment by Hamlet and his murder of her father? Or did she drown herself because that's how Shakespeare wrote the play?

  • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

    A middle way between skepticism and credulity requires trust. I do have trust! I trust that every alleged miracle has a scientific explanation.

    • Sqrat

      Many alleged miracles are accounts of events that may have scientific explanations. Others are accounts of events that never actually occurred; such accounts do not require scientific explanations.

      • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

        Good point!

      • Geena Safire

        Among events that have scientific explanations are the occurrence of spontaneous remission, which are much more frequent than usually thought.

        Spontaneous remission, also called spontaneous healing or spontaneous regression, is an unexpected improvement or cure from a disease that appears to be progressing in its severity. ... [S]pontaneous regression and remission from cancer [is] 'the partial or complete disappearance of a malignant tumour in the absence of all treatment, or in the presence of therapy which is considered inadequate to exert significant influence on neoplastic [i.e., cancerous] disease.' ... In a carefully designed study on mammography it was found that 22% of all breast cancer cases underwent spontaneous regression."

        • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

          But this doesn't have a scientific explanation. Not yet, anyway.

          "In many of the collected cases ... it must be acknowledged that the factors or mechanisms responsible for spontaneous regression are obscure or unknown in the light of present knowledge. However, in some of the cases, available knowledge permits one to infer that hormonal influences probably were important. ... In other cases, the protocols strongly suggest that an immune mechanism was responsible."

          • Geena Safire

            But this doesn't have a scientific explanation. Not yet, anyway.

            Yes, it does. It's called "the immune system." There are also cancers that cause their own demise.

            The immune system destroys most cancerous cells before they have replicated enough to be detectable. Otherwise, we would have likely gone extinct as a species. The cancers we observe are the ones that have either escaped detection or have developed resistance to the immune system. But our immune systems are incredibly adaptive and are often successful, as in 'spontaneous remission,' at figuring out how to fight the cancer.

            In addition, some cancerous tumors are unable to trick the body into providing them with a sufficient blood supply so they are choked off. There are other ways cancers self-destruct, such as developing too many DNA errors to survive.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            Then why does the whole Causes section of your article quote a bunch of scientists saying "I don't know. Maybe this?"

          • Geena Safire

            You'll note it says, "In many of the collected cases..."

            (FYI: More coding fun, since I can tell you really love it even though you literally said that you don't have the time, because I interpret that as being metaphorical, or is it allegorical?:

            To have text in italics: Before: <i>   After: </i>

            Underlined text: Before: <u>   After: </u>

            Bold text: Before: <strong>   After: </strong>

            Text with strikethrough: Before: <strike>   After: </strike>

            Seriously, keep these for later. You'll be glad you did. Metaphorically.)

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            I certainly won't be literally glad.

          • Andre Boillot

            Alternatively, you can use: for bold.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            Use WHAT for bold???

          • Andre Boillot

            Ugh, did i do a weird emoticon thing? WHAT ARE THE KIDS DOING ON THE WEBS?

            [but seriously, you can just use 'b' and '/b' between the things and it'll be all like bold and stuff]

          • Geena Safire

            Hey Andre, More fun with HTML.

            You might be wondering how I got the 'left angle bracket' (<) to appear as text instead of functioning as a 'begin HTML tag.' I used the HTML code ("entity name") for the left angle bracket instead of the bracket. That code is &lt; and the 'lt' means 'less than,' since it is used for '3 & 7', for example.

            So then, you might wonder, how did I get the ampersand (&) to show up in &lt; instead of functioning as the 'begin special character'? I used the HTML code for the ampersand, which is &amp;. (Each special character has a number code ("entity number") as well as an entity code.)

          • Andre Boillot

            "You might be wondering how I got the 'left angle bracket' (<) to appear as text instead of functioning as a 'begin HTML tag.'"

            No, I hate nerd-speak :P

          • Geena Safire

            Je suis désolé. SVP pardonnez-moi. Je ne suis q'un ballot humble. Il me semblait que vous étiez intéressé par ces informations.

          • Andre Boillot

            Haha, no it's actually very welcome info. Thanks for sharing! I meant, merci.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            The entire "Causes" Section of the article you cited, Geena. It really doesn't seem as cut and dry as you present it, is all I'm saying.

            Everson and Cole offered as explanation for spontaneous regression from cancer:

            In many of the collected cases ... it must be acknowledged that the factors or mechanisms responsible for spontaneous regression are obscure or unknown in the light of present knowledge. However, in some of the cases, available knowledge permits one to infer that hormonal influences probably were important. ... In other cases, the protocols strongly suggest that an immune mechanism was responsible.[1]

            Challis and Stam, even more at a loss, concluded in 1989, "In summary, we are left to conclude that, although a great number of interesting and unusual cases continue to be published annually, there is still little conclusive data that explains the occurrence of spontaneous regression."[4]

            In medical circles sometimes apoptosis (programmed cell death) or angiogenesis (growth of new blood vessels) is discussed as "cause" of spontaneous regression. But both mechanisms need appropriate biochemical triggers and can not be caused on their own. To the contrary, in many cancer cells apoptosis is defective, angiogenesis is activated, both caused by mutations in cancer cells; cancer exists because both mechanisms are malfunctioning.[5]

            A great number of spontaneous regressions from cancer occurred after a feverish infection.[2][6] If this coincidence in time would be a causal connection, it should as well precipitate as prophylactic effect, i.e. feverish infections should lower the risk to develop cancer later. This could be confirmed recently by collecting epidemiological studies.[7]

          • Geena Safire

            Everson and Cole wrote that in 1966, which was in the Stone Age as far as cancer was concerned. Even 1989 (Challis and Stam) is in the Dark Ages, since it was almost at the beginning of the Human Genome Project, which is relevant because cancer is a genetic disease.

            You might want to check out the UCSC Cancer Genomics Hub. I can refer you to some other resources. It is true that we don't know all the reasons (yet) for spontaneous remission. But IIRC its occurrence does not correlate with Catholicism nor Christianity.

            (FYI, Daniel, the usual net practice is to remove the footnote numbers if you are not using the footnotes in a comment. Also, either quotation marks or a blockquote section are used to designate writing that is not your own.)

            (In addition, it is helpful to include a link to your source material: Put this before the words you want in your link: <a href="http://the.link.com/here"> And put this after the words you want in your link: </a>

            <a href="http://the.link.com/here">my link words</a>

            Note: The 'http://' is important, or else the link will lead to a 404 non-existent page at the web site you are on, such as 'http://www.strangenotions.com/the.link.com/here'. )

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            :P I'm at work and far too busy for this coding nonsense. Clearly.

          • Geena Safire

            Too busy to be considerate to your readers? Sad.

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            Well, one job pays me, and the other job I do out of love. Sadly, love doesn't feed my child. Literally. It fulfills a figurative need. But you understood that of course. Unless you're one of those people incapable of understanding figurative speech. Of course.

          • Geena Safire

            Unless you're one of those people incapable of understanding figurative speech.

            Well, I guess that would depend on whether I'm partial to Jerome's exegesis... :-)

            (And love does feed your child more importantly than bread. (I would rather die young loved but starving than grow up in the horror of being unloved.) But food is good. And of course you know this. Now get back to work!)

          • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

            Then why doesn't the article you mentioned say that, instead of what I quoted below? The definition of spontaneous remission, in fact, would seem to counter that point: Spontaneous Remission is an unexpected improvement or cure from a disease that appears to be progressing in its severity.

            If it was just the immune system, how unexpected would it be, really? And why are people still baffled by it?

        • David Nickol

          In a carefully designed study on mammography it was found that 22% of all breast cancer cases underwent spontaneous regression."

          As I note at length in another message, the Vatican automatically disregards breast cancer "cures" from consideration as miracles precisely because of this fact. If spontaneous remission of a particular disease is well known, no doctor is going to class the cure as "inexplicable" when on a medical panel attempting to provide information as to whether the cure is miraculous (even though, of course, the reason for spontaneous remission may be unknown).

          So the issue of spontaneous remission for diseases like breast cancer is a red herring in the discussion of how the Catholic Church decides what is a miracle and what is not.

          • Andre Boillot

            "So the issue of spontaneous remission for diseases like breast cancer is a red herring in the discussion of how the Catholic Church decides what is a miracle and what is not."

            I'm sorry, is the higher remission rate for breast cancer medically explicable? What's the threshold for inexplicable cures, above which it's no longer miraculous? Who are you to say that God isn't just performing more miracles when it comes to breast cancer?

          • Argon

            I had a similar question as Andre's. I can see setting up such criteria if one wants to reduce the likelihood of false positives.

            More common classes of events tend to be easier to study and thus are more likely to have their root causes found. In contrast, singleton events tend to be harder to investigate. I think that could make the rare events less likely to be correctly identified as negatives (i.e. non-miracles).

            So, events are either true miracles or non-miracles on one axis and they are either correctly classified or not on a second axis. ...And that's as deep into 'religious set theory' as I'm going to tread.

          • Geena Safire

            Cancer is not a single disease. It's hundreds of diseases. Breast cancer alone is three main types of disease, each with a number of variations, as we are discovering from cancer genomics research. The differences have to do with what combination of DNA errors have led to the cancer. Some sets of errors are more possible for the immune system to, eventually, become able to respond to and defeat.

          • Andre Boillot

            Ugh, see how the worst cancer is?

          • Susan

            sorry, is the higher remission rate for breast cancer medically explicable? What's the threshold for inexplicable cures, above which it's no longer miraculous?

            This is a very important point, Andre.

            Is something considered a miracle because it's rare or because it's inexplicable? The world is full of rare events and of inexplicable events. Also, miracles generally require a happy ending. There are plenty of stories that fulfill all these criteria. Not a high percentage, but because all kinds of things happen that are inexplicable and rare and happy, there will be a high number, a tiny percentage, but a high number.

            Now, we can find countless stories of things that meet all of these criteria but they are not measured against isolated claims of prayers being uttered (to saints and deities or both). For every example of something of this nature happening that coincides with a religious plea, how many happen without any religious pleas whatsoever?

            And very importanty, how many people pray to their saints and deities (not just in the christian world) and succumb sadly to their disease or the plane crash or the tsunami or all kinds of other natural situations that take out most of us?

            Isolated, rare incidents with happy endings that coincide with religious pleas are a subset of what's really going on in reality.

            People love miracles. They give them warm, fuzzy feelings. I understand that.

            That doesn't mean one has really happened.

            What ARE the criteria for a miracle for catholics? I have followed this web site for months and its definition and the most basic standards that would demonstrate it are still unclear.

          • David Nickol

            Is something considered a miracle because it's rare or because it's inexplicable?

            You're collaborating to make a "heads I win, tails you lose" argument. Geena Safire was clearly pointing out the high rate of spontaneous remission in breast cancer to imply that it was not credible to count spontaneous remission of breast cancer as a miracle. "How disingenuous of the Church to count as a miracle something that scientific studies show happens spontaneously so often!" Then, when it is revealed that the Catholic Church does not count spontaneous remission as breast cancer, you imply that it ought to.

            I don't think you can have it both ways. You (collectively) were happy to criticize the Church when it seemed that they considered remission of breast cancer as a miracle, and finding out that it does not, you criticize the Church for not counting remission of breast cancer as a miracle.

            Without laying out a long rationale as to what should be counted as a miracle or not (which I think is quite possible to do), I think it is intuitively sensible to exclude from the category of miracle the spontaneous remission of a disease that is known to go away by itself in a fifth of all cases. It is not necessary to have an elaborate definition of miracle or to have an understanding of why spontaneous remission occurs with that frequency. I think everyone was ready to conclude it was unwarranted to classify spontaneous remission of breast cancer as a miracle until it was found out that the Church doesn't count spontaneous remission of breast cancer as a miracle.

          • Susan

            You're collaborating to make a "heads I win, tails you lose" argument.

            Honestly, I'm not involved in a collaboration. This whole discussion got me thinking and Andre's point, especially.

            It's not about winning or losing. It's about miracle claims. My last questions were sincere and I think reasonable questions.

            Without laying out a long rationale as to what should be counted as a miracle or not (which I think is quite possible to do),

            Why not do it then? It's not a trap. I think it's important that this rationale be laid out in a discussion that involves miracle claims.

            I think it is intuitively sensible to exclude from the category of miracle the spontaneous remission of a disease that is known to go away by itself in a fifth of all cases

            Intuitively sensible, yes. But why? Our intuitions don't serve us very well in situations like this. Which is why I asked what the criteria are.

            I didn't mean to pull a fast one. Sincerely, I'm not trying to "have it both ways". I'm trying to understand.

            "Miracle" is just one more word that seems to rely on our intuitions and has not been clearly defined. That this occurred to me part way through the discussion does not mean I'm changing the rules. I realized I was asking the wrong questions.

          • josh

            '"Miracle" is just one more word that seems to rely on our intuitions and has not been clearly defined. '

            Welcome to Catholicism! (Sorry to interrupt, it just stood out to me as emblematic of almost every conversation I've had here.) :)

          • Susan

            Sorry to interrupt

            You're not interrupting.

            it just stood out to me as emblematic of almost every conversation I've had here.

            Agreed. It makes it difficult to "reason" together.

          • Argon

            Hi David,

            I think the expectations one would have regarding the frequency and conditions under which miracles occur must strongly depend one's expectations about the nature of the miracle 'generator'. I'm not bashing RCC notions but at least in regard to Stacy Trasancos' recent thread about being open to miracles, there are clearly differences about the sorts of miracles different people and faiths are willing accept. And of course, if one accepts the general notion that miracles occur, then the sorts of miracles that the RCC will officially certify will likely contain a subset of all actual miracles. That's just a function of how you set your filter. I'd expect the same for other organizations, be they the Judean People's Front or the People's Front of Judea.

          • Geena Safire

            Judean People's Front

            Splitter!

          • Andre Boillot

            Without laying out a long rationale as to what should be counted as a miracle or not (which I think is quite possible to do), I think it is intuitively sensible to exclude from the category of miracle the spontaneous remission of a disease that is known to go away by itself in a fifth of all cases.

            Could you lay out a short rationale (or even just list the qualifications) of what counts as a miracle? In the case of breast-cancer it seems we are no closer to understanding why the remissions are more frequent. It would seem strange that unexplained breast-cancer remission be excluded while other unexplained cancer remissions included based merely on their relative frequencies.

          • David Nickol

            Could you lay out a short rationale (or even just list the qualifications) of what counts as a miracle?

            I'll give it a shot without checking a bunch of references first. I would say that a miracle is something that takes place because God wills it directly and specifically to happen in a particular case, and to be a miracle it must either violate the laws of nature or probability (and usually both). It may not be possible to prove a miracle (if they happen at all) beyond a metaphysical doubt, but certainly one can imagine something that would be a miracle beyond a reasonable doubt, whether miracles do occur in reality or not. I think it can be assumed that something that happens in 20 percent of cases (the spontaneous remission of breast cancer) is neither a violation of the laws of nature, even thought we may not understand why it happens, and certainly not a volition of the laws of probability.

            I think we would all agree if what I call an "impossible miracle" were to occur that it was indeed a miracle. If somebody's head was blown off on the battlefield, and a robed male appeared out of nowhere, set the head back on the shoulders, and the man's head reattached with no lasting damage, that would be a miracle. If someone was being chased by a serial killer, and the person being chased prayed for help, whereupon out of the clear blue sky, lightning struck and killed the serial killer, I would would classify that as a miracle. However, if the exact same thing happened except the person being chased was hit by lightning, I would classify that as a bizarre occurrence. One site I checked said that the odds of being struck by lightning in a lifetime are 1 in 6250. So lightning striking a person isn't all that rare. But I think you have to ask what the odds are of lightning striking exactly when and where you want it to strike, and those odds seem to me infinitesimal.

            Now, I am going to play three lottery-type games tomorrow and Saturday as follows:

            MegaMillions Friday $291 million
            PowerBall Saturday $100 million
            Lotto Saturday $2.9 million

            If I win all three I will consider it a miracle and publicly announce here on Strange Notions (and no doubt on a number of television shows, like the Today Show) that i had been a skeptic but now am convinced there is a God. Strange Notions will become famous, and I will donate $10 million to support it. There have been people who have won big-jackpot lotteries more than once, but I don't believe anyone has ever won all three that they have entered in a two-day span, and I don't believe anyone ever will.

            Here are the odds:

            MegaMillions 1 in 259 million
            PowerBall 1 in 175 million
            Lotto 1 in 45 million

            The odds of winning all three consecutively are:
            1 in 2,039,625,000,000,000,000,000,000 which is (I think) two septillion, thirty-nine sextillion, 625 quintillion to 1. Wish me luck!

            I must stress that winning one of the three or two of the three will not do. It must be all three on the dates specified.

          • Andre Boillot

            Well, if nothing else, thanks for the thoughtful reply!

      • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

        "Many alleged miracles are accounts of events that may have scientific explanations. Others are accounts of events that never actually occurred; such accounts do not require scientific explanations."

        We agree! I'd only add that others are accounts that have no purely scientific explanation but actually occurred.

        • Sqrat

          What's a miracle? I put my pen on the desk five minutes ago. It's still there. The Church teaches that the fact that it's still there is a miracle, for which there is no scientific explanation.

          The implication of that same teaching is that, if my pen had disappeared into thin air before my very eyes at some time during the last five minutes, that would NOT have been a miracle.

    • Geena Safire

      I concur. I don't like how this article paints skepticism as a bad thing in the way credulity is a bad thing.

      Credulity: "A state of willingness to believe in one or many people or things in the absence of reasonable proof or knowledge." "A tendency to be too ready to believe that something is real or true."

      Skepticism: "Skepticism (or scepticism) is generally any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or [more stringently] doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere."

      It should be noted, related to the second meaning of skepticism that, in traditional philosophy, being a skeptic meant something more drastic, almost to the point of being what today we call a solipsist: one who that certain knowledge of anything is impossible, save for one's thinking itself.

      • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

        Yes, that was my point. Someone's academic skepticism about miracles tends to involve a level of trust in her own reason and senses, a level of trust that would violate the principles of Pyrrhonian skepticism.

      • Ye Olde Statistician

        That's not "traditional" philosophy. That's Kant, a modern innovator, undoubtedly sent by the Devil into the world to sow doubt regarding the external reality of scientific knowledge. (/sarc)

        For traditional philosophy, see Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, ibn Sinna, Maimonides, Boethius, Hugh of St. Victor, Thomas Aquinas, Dun Scotus, William of Ockham, Leibnitz, et al.

        • Geena Safire

          That's not "traditional" philosophy. That's Kant, a modern innovator

          A difference between Americans and Europeans is that Europeans think a hundred miles is a long distance, and Americans think that a hundred years is a long time.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Of course. Science describes the metrical properties of physical bodies. Whatever the miracle, there will be a sequence of physical events, and these events are in principle describable by Science!™ But this is a bit like explaining the Moonlight Sonata by the physics of vibrating strings.

      • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

        I am very glad that you share my trust that all phenomena have a physical explanation. I think that many people, theists and atheists, hold this belief in common. It is always good to find a kindred spirit in these matters.

        • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

          Physical explanations get a little weird once you expand beyond the big bang. What is physicality without a universe?

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            By "phenomenon" I mean any observed event (I think that this is the standard definition). What phenomena have been observed beyond the big bang?

          • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

            Are you familiar with the Bible? If you are, I can just pop off references but if you're not, I'm willing to unpack a few.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            I have absolutely no idea how verses in the Bible would possibly help, since all of them were written down after the Big Bang.

          • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

            What you just said is the equivalent of saying lab books are useless because they are all written down after the beginning of the experiment. I'll pick my jaw off the floor now.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            Only if the Bible is somehow the equivalent of God's lab book about observable events (phenomena) before the big bang. In which case, I'd ask why God is so bad at math that he decided not to include any equations, numbers or measurements (indeed, nothing that could be useful for any scientific community at all). Or why he felt that the best place to look for his co-authors would be tribal pre-scientific societies.

            Let's say that I'm a bit skeptical about the "Bible as a science lab book" claim. ;)

          • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

            The Bible is a compilation of stories, including stories about universe origination and a pretty clear claim that God existed prior to the start of time. Back when the big bang was first proposed, there was a certain amount of resistance to it in scientific circles because it smacked too much of the book of Genesis.

            The Bible is not a science book. It's a book that helps people live their lives in a manner pleasing to God but it also includes certain truths that are relevant to science and thus is somewhat relevant. See the bit about Genesis above. Let there be light indeed.

            As to why no equations, I think you're missing the point of the Bible a bit if you expect them. Equations don't seem to help you get to Heaven so there are no equations.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            You have provided an eloquent and persuasive argument for why the Bible provides us with no reliable record of phenomena at or before the Big Bang.

            I think that the best explanation for Genesis 1 is that people made it up.

          • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

            I'm sorry you're taking it that way as that was not the intention. I understand that you think that Genesis 1 is just made up. How lucky a guess they made! But you don't think it improbably lucky. I do. I don't think that my belief as to the probability of such a close guess is scientific. Do you imagine that your position is scientific?

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            I find nothing extraordinary about Genesis, scientifically speaking. If read literally, most of Genesis is wrong (the sun didn't come into existence four days after the Big Bang, and life didn't evolve within days of the sun being formed). If read figuratively, all of Genesis can mean whatever you want it to mean.

            If the question is simply whether the universe had a beginning or not, from total ignorance, Genesis had a 50% chance of being right. It's as lucky as I am half the time. If it's right. It still could be wrong.

          • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

            Fred Hoyle's attacks on the Big Bang theory must really look strange to you.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            I don't know much about what he thought about the Big Bang, except that he coined the term and he didn't like the idea. Lots of his ideas look strange to me. Bacteria in space!

          • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

            It was quite the fight and Hoyle, very atheist, was set off by Fr. LeMaitre's theory and fought a rear guard action against it for decades after the evidence started tilting towards big bang vs steady state which he favored.

            LeMaitre's story is very interesting. I recommend it and I think that you'd like him.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Lema%C3%AEtre

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            I wrote an article for Strange Notions about, in part, Lemaître's ideas about the Big Bang (it's sitting in the queue). One interesting thing is that Lemaître didn't think his theory had implications about God one way or the other. I'm not sure Hoyle would have actually disagreed, although he might have brought up religion as a polemical weapon.

          • Argon

            Actually, Hoyle's attacks on Big Bang Theory seem kinda strange to me, particularly long after it was pretty clear the steady-state models were untenable.

            But perhaps less strange after learning about his infatuation with panspermia or reading his papers with Chandra Wickramasinghe about trying to link sunspot cycles with flu pandemics to support the idea that the pandemics came from interstellar flu viruses. These viruses, they reasoned, were sourced by a cosmic intelligence which directed the course of biological evolution around the cosmos and were the vehicles used to inject new DNA sequences into the genomes of terrestrial organisms. They also proposed that our noses evolved with downward openings to reduce the rates of infection from the interstellar viruses when they were washed down from the atmosphere in rain.

            He also teamed with others, like 'noted' Jewish Creationist Lee Spetner in claiming that a key Archaeopteryx fossil in London was a fake (It wasn't). Hoyle certainly went at whichever direction he chose with some gusto.

            Contrast this with someone like George Gamow, another atheist and major contributor to the work supporting the Big Bang.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            Like I said, I'm not very familiar with Hoyle's religious objections to the Big Bang. Can you provide some resources on that? It would be very helpful to me. Thanks!

    • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

      It seems a funny faith to me but so long as you do not fool yourself that this trust is science, you're a step up from a lot of critics of religion.

      • hillclimber

        Is Paul's faith really that strange from a Catholic perspective? I am one Catholic who says that it is not. When I say that I believe in God's goodness, it implies a belief that God would not interrupt the grammar of His own poem, or the meter of His own song, in order to make a point. Maybe there are changes in meter, the logic of which we can't yet appreciate, but to me Catholic belief implies that this logic will one day be revealed to us.

        • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

          It's a mistaken faith from a Catholic perspective but no stranger than a lot of others.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            The Catholic faith is mistaken from the world's perspective, and far stranger than most others.

          • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

            Funny enough, Catholics start to worry when the world doesn't think we're strange. We're ok with it, always have been.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            I meant the second part as a compliment. Normal is boring. Strange hats are fun.

        • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

          I'm glad to hear it! I know many theists, mostly Protestant and Jewish, who would agree with me. I'm very happy to find out that some Catholics would also agree. There's an underlying logic.

          • hillclimber

            Yeah, I know some will disagree, but as far as I can tell there's nothing clearly heretical in this view. The Church teaches that miracles involve the supernatural intervention of God, and I agree, but to me the supernatural part is the awakening to a deeper reality. That awakening occurs at the level of sentience that even many scientists agree is not accessible to scientific explanation, but that does not imply (to me anyway) that the physical correlates to miracles are unexplainable in scientific terms.

            The ambiguity also exists on the scientific end, where it's a bit unclear what constitutes "the natural order" or what it means to explain things "in scientific terms". We now can all appreciate that even the "natural order" is often only describable in stochastic terms. As nicely discussed in this John Polkinghorne clip, even the "natural order" has this great open-ness to it: http://meaningoflife.tv/video.php?speaker=polkinghorne&topic=freewill

      • Argon

        Good point, TMLutas. And the reverse is true too. Being a critic of religion (any or all) or a non-believer does not make one a "disciple of scientism" though it's what many religious proponents may think.

        Myself, I look at it as preferring proximate over distal explanations. In other words, working with things more close at hand.

        • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

          Scientism is adhering to things that do not follow purely from the scientific method and calling it science. A disturbing number of people do that.

          • Argon

            Yeah, but one can't really judge percentages based on the numbers one encounters on the internets. There's a perverse bias. In my experience, relatively few of the scientists I've worked with fall into that metaphysics. On the other hand, in real life, I've encountered a lot of people with real funny ideas about what scientists believe.

      • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

        I suspect that it is a trust that is common to most scientists. A funny faith for a funny people ;) . You are correct, though, it is not required.

        • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

          I don't have more recent data but Pew had a bare majority of scientists believing in a deity in 2009
          http://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/

          I think it's actually kind of sad for atheist scientists to conduct witch hunts of their believing colleagues (see the link).

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            33% is not a majority. 33% < 50%. Also, 41% don't believe in a deity or higher power. 41% is also 33%. It seems as though the majority position among scientists is non-belief. That's not what's interesting to me.

            What's interesting to me is that scientists are 10x more likely to be non-theists than the general public. Why do you think that is? I ask the question honestly, because from my perspective, religion shouldn't make a difference one way or the other. The statistics perplex me also.

            The Pew Forum did not ask the relevant question: Do all phenomena have a natural explanation, even if we don't know what it is yet? I suspect that more than 50% of scientists would say "yes", and more than 50% of the general population would say "no".

            As I said, many of my religious colleagues also think every phenomenon has a natural explanation.

          • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

            51% believe in some form of deity or higher power (i.e. not atheist) which I thought was the dividing line we were discussing (atheist/theist) not were a majority of scientists monotheists.

            One answer to why atheism is more prevalent among scientists is answered in the first paragraph of the link. Admitted belief is hazardous to your career prospects in far more labs than admitted atheism is hazardous to career advancement. How much of the phenomenon does this account for is not something I know but it's at least a partial explanation. When the directorship of the NIH is put at risk because of outspoken religious beliefs, this sends a message don't you think?

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            51% believe in some form of deity or higher power (i.e. not atheist) which I thought was the dividing line we were discussing (atheist/theist) not were a majority of scientists monotheists.

            I don't consider someone who believes in a higher power a theist, although maybe you do. In which case, I'm a theist. (yay!) I'd prefer to split it into theist, atheist and other (and happily place myself in the "other" category, at least for right now).

            One answer to why atheism is more prevalent among scientists is answered in the first paragraph of the link. Admitted belief is hazardous to your career prospects in far more labs than admitted atheism is hazardous to career advancement.

            I don't think either is very hazardous. I don't think either will have much effect on future career prospects. That's my opinion as a working scientist and one who got his job at St Andrews while identifying as a Catholic (they ask you your religion in some UK job applications). My adviser at Ohio State knew I was a Catholic, and we had some great conversations about our respective beliefs over some beers.

            Stacy Trasancos even wrote an article in part about how little someone's faith matters one way or the other in scientific communities. It's a great article: http://www.strangenotions.com/science-together/

            Although I respect that some people perceive there is this persecution of Christians or other theists in the sciences, the people who have this perception are often either non-scientists, or they are proponents of pseudo-science like intelligent design.

            But let's even imagine that there was rampant persecution. This would be persecution by a popular minority onto a popular majority. It therefore begs the question of how the sciences became so non-theistic in the first place, before there was this supposed persecution.

            For those two reasons, I find the "persecution" theory to be an almost entirely unconvincing explanation for the 10x difference.

          • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

            Oh I don't think it's all of the discrepancy, merely an unknown portion.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            Maybe, although I have yet to witness it. I'd imagine it must happen somewhere.

          • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

            Since I gave a link to a very public example in history recent enough that you should have been around for it, I don't see how that's actually true. Or do you mean you won't accept it happens unless you're actually in the room.

          • josh

            Ummm, Collins was confirmed unanimously by the Senate so I'm not sure you can explain a dearth of religious scientists with atheist 'witch hunts' using that example. No one argued that he shouldn't be a scientist, but some felt that the public face of a major scientific organization shouldn't be someone who has made a career of endorsing a picture of science and religion that many scientists don't agree with. That's politics, not persecution.

          • Argon

            Collins isn't a Young Earth Creationist. He's got no religious beef against the NIH's mission and as far as I know his religious beliefs never skewed his scientific judgement. There was no conflict to worry about.

          • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

            Collins was just an example that I tripped across on a quick google search when verifying the religious beliefs of scientists. I don't do this professionally. A better example might be the 2006 House investigation on religious discrimination at the Smithsonian

            http://ow.ly/ruyuL

            It's not particularly reassuring when the investigators all say it's a slam dunk case of discrimination but it's structured in a way we can't touch.

            Again, I don't know how big of a problem this is. I just don't find it particularly plausible that the problem is inexistent.

          • Argon

            Read deeper about the Sternberg case. I followed that pretty closely when it erupted.

          • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

            I found Sternberg's statement of his views here:
            http://www.richardsternberg.com/pdf/sternintellbio08.pdf

            I believe that he's an excellent case. You do not ban somebody from his office and then blame him for not going to his office to add alcohol to specimen jars. That's plain persecution and anti-scientific maliciousness because no scientist should ever go along with a plan against a colleague that ends up endangering or destroying a specimen. It's also something that I'd forgotten about because I didn't get obsessed over the thing. I dimly remembered the affair with the keys.

            Two independent investigations concluded that there was bias.

            His actual views are "I look at the whole ID issue from the standpoint of neo-pythagorean neo-platonism" which seems to translate to "I'm keeping my options open". When keeping your options open is unacceptable scientific opinion, something's seriously wrong.

            Something is seriously wrong.

          • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

            This is sometimes called a 'brush back pitch'. Collins was too well qualified to bring down. For a new scientist looking for their first position in a crowded field, they are so much easier to derail and do it without news coverage or any other bother.

            Actual science should be open to anybody regardless of their religious beliefs. The idea that the religious beliefs of the public face of a scientific organization are relevant is odious.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            Sorry. I should have been clearer. I don't think the public statements had much effect on Collins getting the job. I've never known a case where a scientist was turned down for a job because of his or her faith, although I imagine it probably happens from time to time. It shouldn't happen at all.

          • Argon

            Agree Paul.This shouldn't happen in a secular setting.

          • Argon

            I've been in scientific settings continuously (academic and industrial) for a few decades now. I don't really see religious belief (particularly Catholic) being a terrible hazard for the careers of most fellow scientists.

            Instead, I suspect the differences in proportion of scientists who are religious vs those of the general public and other professions are largely due to self-selection.To me this is very apparent among Evangelicals who more often adhere to a Young-Earth Creation belief about the world and have been historically 'suspicious' about science and other sources of authority outside literal interpretations of the Bible. Relative to the distribution of religious faiths in the US, they are disproportionately underrepresented among the scientific community. A scientific career which can directly challenge those beliefs is much less attractive and 'odder' among that community of faith.

            Less so with groups like Catholics, Jews and, say, Quakers, which tend to have much less doctrinal conflict with most of current scientific understanding.

            And on the flip side, those who aspires to the approaches of commonly practiced science are probably naturally less inclined toward religious faith.

            Now, engineers are another matter.

          • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

            I said that there's an unknown sized effect of the religious getting pressure in the sciences which explains part of the difference in belief. You responded that the effect is mostly self selection and isn't "a terrible hazard for the careers of most fellow scientists". Sorry, but I need to ask, are we agreeing or disagreeing?

          • Argon

            That depends on what you think about the magnitude of the mechanism you suggested. I'm certain there are cases. If "religious belief as a real hazard for scientists' careers" accounts for a few percent of the effect then it's trivial. Something to try to correct but trivial in sense of accounting for the numbers.

            Looking at the numbers about religious beliefs among scientists and particularly from a Catholic perspective, I'd be asking, "What is it about our faith or the culture of our flock that leads them away from a scientific career?" I find the situation a bit odd because it's not as if there aren't good examples of scientists who are practicing Catholics. One wouldn't expect many devote Catholics to be engaged in fetal stem cell, contraceptive, or in vitro fertilization research but otherwise there aren't many areas of science that would be proscribed.

          • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

            There are plenty of areas of science that aren't well stocked with researchers investigating them. I would guess that normal practice would be area of investigation shifting, not lower involvement in science overall. I am neutral as to causation. It could be, as you say, something "about our faith or the culture of our flock that leads them away from a scientific career" or it could be that it's a less than welcoming atmosphere that's expressing itself in subtle ways. It could also be a combination of the two. I have no idea.

            Someone should do a study, hopefully with better reliability than most disparate impact studies.

  • picklefactory

    Take either skepticism or credulity too far and you wind up thinking nonsense (as when Maher extends his skepticism to reject, not just the unseen reality of God, but the unseen reality of disease-causing germs or a faith healing devotee chalks up every head cold to a demon).

    While I'd be the first to admit that the line between science and pseudoscience is not always a bright one, what is being described is doing skepticism wrong, not doing it too much.

    • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

      I think people who had faith would put it the exact same way: it's about believing wrong, not believing too much.

  • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

    I think a lot of the regular atheists commenting here may already be aware that this is how Catholics read the Bible, and will proffer some thoughtful objections. Probably the most common would be that reading portions of the Bible allegorically is a means of whitewashing the pre-Christian meaning of texts. For example, the YouTube comedian Bo Burnham lampoons Catholic exegesis in his "Rant" song, which talks about Leviticus 25 being about "moral cotton" and "freeing our hearts from slavery." (Of course, for Bo it's a short jump from there into all kinds of ugly distortions.) Another objection, I would guess, would be: if we're going to read some texts allegorically, there's no logical "rule" that keeps us from applying this allegorical "lens" to Christ's death and resurrection in equal measure, and reading Christ's divinity and miracles as "incidental" to his message of love. I hope Mark addresses these two objections.

    That being said, I really do think that there is a major misconception among atheists and agnostics in the broader culture about the Bible. How many talking points from atheists like Maher or Dawkins center on six days of creation, talking snakes, shellfish, stoning, etc.? There's even a clip of President Obama talking about these passages, concluding: "folks haven't been reading their Bibles." I don't blame them necessarily, because Biblical literalism is such a prevalent force in America - which is why it's so crucial that we discuss the 2,000 year-old Catholic alternative, and not take for granted that people are aware of it.

    • Andre Boillot

      I suppose my first question would be whether or not "the 2,000 year-old Catholic alternative" has consistently viewed the passages in question as allegorical, or if there was an evolution in their interpretations. I seem to recall posts here on SN that argue less that some of these passages were not meant to be taken literally, and more that the audience they were intended for was not yet ready for the fullness of God's message. It would also be interesting to hear what the Jewish tradition has thought of these passages over time.

      I do think this focus on Maher is a bit of a strawman. I don't know many serious atheists who take their talking points from him, just as I don't know too many serious Catholics who take their talking points from O'Reilly. That being said, you're right to point out that atheist do worry about the effects of Biblical literalism - it's quite unsettling to have members of influential Congressional committees discount the idea of global warming because they believe that God has promised never to flood the Earth again - though obviously not something specifically directed at the Catholic Church.

    • Geena Safire

      I think a lot of the regular atheists...

      Aw gee, Matthew. I thought you saw us as special atheists.   :-(

      ;-)

      • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

        Any atheist willing to come to Strange Notions to dialogue with Catholics on the big questions is special as far as I'm concerned!

  • Geena Safire

    My favorite take on biblical exegesis, from Augustine, 'Confessions', Book XII, Chapter 31:

    "42. Thus, when one shall say, 'He [Moses] meant as I do,' and another, 'Nay, but as I do,' I suppose that I am speaking more religiously when I say, 'Why not rather as both, if both be true?'

    And if there be a third truth, or a fourth, and if any one seek any truth altogether different in those words, why may not he be believed to have seen all these, through whom one God has tempered the Holy Scriptures to the senses of many, about to see therein things true but different?

    I certainly,—and I fearlessly declare it from my heart—were I to write anything to have the highest authority, should prefer so to write, that whatever of truth any one might apprehend concerning these matters, my words should re-echo, rather than that I should set down one true opinion so clearly on this as that I should exclude the rest, that which was false in which could not offend me.

    Therefore am I unwilling, O my God, to be so headstrong as not to believe that from You this man [Moses] has received so much. He, surely, when he wrote those words, perceived and thought whatever of truth we have been able to discover, yea, and whatever we have not been able, nor yet are able, though still it may be found in them."

  • Zxenia Cvenka

    People are either of a type disposed toward acceptance of the supernatural or they are not. It seems to me that you can be acceptably Catholic either way. I do not have a problem accepting either mindset as serious individuals. What troubles me in this post is Mister Shea's statement that Catholics are not blindly dogmatic bigots who yell Allahu Akbar and those that follow the way of Islam are. This is the kind of springboard that quickly leads to hate speech.

    I think that all of us, of all religions, need to accept that there are dogmatic bigots and haters in all religions, as well as true seekers of the deity. It is for this reason that I find Mister Shea suspect as someone capable of shedding light on the nature of true Catholicism.

    Engagement and dialogue, good. Vilification and ostracization, bad.

  • MichaelNewsham

    "Allahu Akbar"means "God is greatest"- do you deny that God is great, Mr.Shea? Do you believe there is something greater? Is it your opinion that He is small. petty, worthless?

    If your answer to the above is "No", then perhaps you had better think twice before smearing other people as "mindless"

  • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

    I think many of the atheists who comment here are well aware that many Christians do not employ a literal interpretation. But nor do they apply a crtitical literary approach or a critical historical approach. But rather a theological approach.

    My atheist criticism is that a theological approach largely abandons critical thinking. But I will read on with interest.

  • cminca

    "Read the Scripture within “the living tradition of the whole Church”; "
    In other words--by claiming tradition we can make it say whatever we say it says even if the interpretation is wholly illogical and even inconsistent within Catholic teaching.

    • WhiteRock

      Examples?

      • cminca

        Explain the Catholic position on Shellfish vs. Homosexuality as based on the teaching of Leviticus.

        • TomD

          Through Christ, prohibitions against unclean foods, such as shellfish, as well as requirements for animal sacrifices and circumcision, are no longer applicable as they are/have been fulfilled through Christ. This is not true of the sexual morality laws as given by God in Leviticus 18. If it was, your contention would also apply to Shellfish vs. Adultery (Lev 18:20) and Shellfish vs. Bestiality (Lev 18:23), as just two examples.

          Specific to the uncleanliness issue concerning certain foods as taught in Leviticus, Jesus teaches ". . . '[d]o you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?' (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, 'What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.'” (Mk 7:18-23, RSV-CE).

          Some of the law from Leviticus is fulfilled, or no longer applicable, through Christ. Sexual immorality, as given in Leviticus 18, is not one of those things.

          That is, basically, the reason why some of the law of Leviticus still applies, while some does not. I'd discuss this further with you, as I am sure you have a response - perhaps on topic, perhaps not - but I have limited time and seriously doubt that any further discussion would be very fruitful anyway.

          • cminca

            Thank you Tom--but that doesn't actually answer the question.

            Because Jesus doesn't say "Therefore you may ignore the old laws"--does he? The statement "thus he declared all foods cleaned" is not FACT--it is interpretation.

            And Matt 5:17-19 would seem to directly dispute your, and the CC's, interpretation: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”

            But, of course, that depends on how you interpret the passage from Matthew. Or how you interpret the overall message of the Bible. Or interpret the interpretation. Or interpret the interpretation as interpreted by certain interpreters but not by other interpreters. Which seems a pretty accurate description of the Council of Nicea.

            But let's stretch credulity for a moment and, for the sake of argument, agree that your original statement is a logical and defensible position. Your statement is that the Catholic Church would be correct in stating that the laws of sexual morality still apply (while others do not).

            "But if this charge is true (that she wasn't a virgin on her wedding night), and evidence of the girls virginity is not found, they shall bring the girl to the entrance of her fathers house and there her townsman shall stone her to death, because she committed a crime against Israel by her unchasteness in her father's house. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 22:20-21 NAB)"

            So can you please explain to me why Callista Gingrich is still alive and a Catholic in good standing?

          • TomD

            From shellfish to Callista Gingrich. Whew!?!? What a creative turn of topic. You'll have me running around in circles, dizzy, if I follow you too far down this rabbit hole.

            I'll follow Jesus on that one, as with the women caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), but if you wish to cast the first stone and take out Callista Gingrich, feel free to do so. I doubt that the civil authorities would look kindly on it however.

          • cminca

            Well--as I said--"we can make it say whatever we say it says even if the interpretation is wholly illogical and even inconsistent within Catholic teaching."

            If morality was too much for you--we can also discuss usury laws or working on the Sabbath.

            Because I haven't heard the CC take on Citibank or Walmart.

  • severalspeciesof

    Some thoughts to throw out here:

    “How Catholics understand the bible”

    That very statement is why (among many, many, whys) I don’t
    believe in an omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent being. How is it even
    possible for an entity such as a god that supposedly has ALL THREE qualities
    produce something that is only understandable through the faulty venue of
    interpretation?

    Glen

  • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

    The Catholic approach to the Bible is pretty sensible really, especially when compared to the forms of Protestantism that are common in the U.S. A simplified way of putting it is that the Bible is the Church's primary liturgical book and Catholics are free to find many levels of meaning in it so long as they accord with doctrine which is passed down and developed via tradition, whereas for many Protestants the Bible is their primary source of doctrine and their worship is passed down and developed via tradition.

    Trying to piece together doctrine from a book as varied as the Bible leads to all manner of absurdities, and I'm sympathetic to new atheist criticism of them; I think such systems are utterly unworthy of belief by rational people. Catholicism by contrast can be worthy of belief by rational people in ordinary circumstances, though of course I think its key claims are mostly wrong.

    Of course, the best approach, for Catholics, Protestants, atheists, and others is to ask people what they believe and then respond to that, rather than telling people what we think they believe!

  • http://backroomcatholic.com/ Daniel McGiffin

    Not on topic, unnecessarily belligerent... bad day at work or what?