Friday, October 17, 2008

Simultaneity and Relativity

This morning I came across a blog post in which it was claimed that "time is a construct":
everything is happening simultaneously. Right now, I am writing at my computer. Right now, I am voting at my local school. Right now, Christ is dying on a cross. Right now, He is making a covenant and receiving a kiss. Right now, Napoleon is heading to Waterloo. Right now, George Washington is facing defeat for the umpteenth time. Right now, I am being needlessly cruel to someone. Right now I am being born. Right now I am 78 years old and grousing that my kids never visit me. Right now, Obama has won the election. Right now John McCain has won the election.
There is an interesting confusion here between the epistemological and the ontological (along with what looks like a conflation of relativity with certain string-theoretical interpretations of quantum mechanics). Relativity theory, famously, describes a universe in which the concept of simultaneity is in need of serious theoretical revision since, according to the theory, there is no such thing as a privileged vantage point from which to describe discrete events as having any meaningful temporal relations. It does not follow from this point about the relativity of frameworks, however, that time is in every sense a construct. Obviously certain elements of our subjective experience of time are constructed, but just as obviously there are certain temporal relations that are ontologically independent of any particular framework.

So, for example, if a man in Beijing sits down in a chair at 2:15 his time, and I sit down in a chair at 14:15 my time, there is no privileged vantage point from which it can be known with certainty that we sat down simultaneously. For the same reason there is no privileged vantage point from which one could say with certainty that he sat down before I did, or that I sat down before he did. On the other hand, there is no vantage point from which it would make any rational sense to say that we do not know with certainty that Julius Caesar died before I was born. You can carry this relativistic crap only just so far.

It is also worth remembering that relativity theory, though robustly consistent with observation, is like any other scientific theory: it is one interpretation of reality among many. Indeed, if it is to be counted as a scientific theory at all, it must be deemed falsifiable, which presupposes the possibility that it may prove to be, after all, an incorrect interpretation of reality. This, in turn, presupposes that there are such things as incorrect interpretations of reality, of course, but if we don't presuppose that then there seems little point in doing science at all other than for mere mental masturbation. Those who, in the 1970s and 1980s, sought to turn the sciences into more geeky versions of the humanities (which were still in the throes of critical theory at the time) might find it congenial to argue that there is no such thing as correct or incorrect when it comes to interpretations of the world, but such people need not be taken seriously in the lab. Or really anywhere else either.

That relativity theory may fail to interpret the world correctly is a possibility that is sometimes forgotten by undergraduates in some of my philosophy of science classes, who seem to take a kind of perverse delight in saying things like "There's no such thing as simultaneity" or "It doesn't make any sense to talk about events being simultaneous" (or temporally ordered, for that matter). Why they don't take the time to preface their remarks with some such caveat as "According to one physical theory..." is probably a reflection of the exuberance of youth, but its cuteness wears off after a while and it comes to seem like a sign of dogmatic adolescence more than anything else. Being impetuous may get you into the marriage of your dreams, I suppose, but it might also get you into the marriage of your nightmares.

The theological claim that "all times are eternally present to God" has a rather nice pedigree going back at least as far as St Augustine, but theological claims are a lot like scientific claims: they are open to falsification. This is an artifact of their being only analogies: some of them become enshrined as dogmata and we are required to give them intellectual assent, but that does not alter the fact that, come the eschaton, we may find that things are not precisely as we supposed them to be. To say that God is Three Persons with a single nature may very well be the best thing that can possibly be said by humans about God, but at best it only borders on what the truth actually is, because it is merely a proposition, not a reality. One trusts that it is the best representation of reality that humans are capable of given the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but it is a representation nonetheless: actually experiencing God in the eschaton will necessarily be different from merely thinking about him as a Trinity of Persons with a single nature.

There is an interesting review article by Stephen Barr in the most recent issue of First Things in which he assesses a collection of essays by Wolfhart Pannenberg called The Historicity of Nature: Essays on Science and Theology ("Theology After Newton", First Things 187 (November 2008), pp. 29-33) in which a very different theological interpretation of reality is proposed, one in which temporal relations are an essential feature of creation and God's presence in it. While Pannenberg is no Augustine his views are extremely interesting, and one is reminded that while there may be some sense in which it is meaningful to say that "all times are eternally present to God", it may not be all that salutary to take such speculation either too literally or too seriously.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Robert George on Obama's Extremism

Professor Robert P. George of Princeton University has written a brilliant essay in Public Discourse, an organ of The Witherspoon Institute, in which he assess the reasons why many Catholics who count themselves as pro-life nevertheless favor Barack Obama in the presidential election.

I picked up the reference to the essay from Dr. Michael Liccione, my co-conspirator over at Philosophia Perennis. I agree with him that the essay is both very good and very important, but, sadly, I must also agree with him when he writes to me: "too bad it probably won't matter". It certainly won't matter in the broader sense of having any effect on the outcome of the election, but it is certainly very sad that it also probably will have no effect on the thinking of those pseudo-Catholics who think that they can support such a man for the presidency in good conscience.

A friend of mine once remarked that he would probably support Obama in the election, not so much because of his policies, but because of the two candidates he seemed less likely to actually have any impact on anything important. In short, according to my friend, there are some ways in which Obama is the lesser of two evils. Given the impotency of the presidency in the face of an unruly Congress there may be some truth to this, but if one pairs up an Obama with a Congress controlled by the Democrats, one shudders to think of what may happen to the SCOTUS and, ultimately, the most innocent of human persons. The irony here, of course, is that supporters of Obama portray his position as one that defends liberty: the liberty of women to choose. The argument is sometimes made rather doctrinally, as though choice in and of itself were the only liberty at stake, but more reasonably the argument is sometimes made that an Obama administration would promote values, programs, and institutions that, in the end, will make the "need" for abortion diminish to the vanishing point.

As Robert George says in his essay, this point of view is delusional.

Monday, October 06, 2008

But Then We Already Knew That Tradition Means Nothing To Them

I have blogged several times about my fond memories of the Right Reverend Robert W. Duncan, the Episcopal bishop of Pittsburgh and the man responsible for bringing me into the Christian Church. Search on his name at this blog and you can read more about the time I spent with him when he was the campus minister at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Recently he has been involved in the movement to restore some semblance of orthodoxy to the Episcopal Church but, sadly, he and his orthodox ilk appear to be very much in the minority in that train wreck of a denomination. Last month he was removed from his position as bishop of Pittsburgh by the House of Bishops because he had been advocating a kind of secession from the Episcopal Church. It's interesting that Shelby Spong, who, as far as I am concerned, does not count even as a Christian let alone as a bishop of the Church, was never even reprimanded for his heresies, and yet Bob Duncan is removed from office for advocating a return to orthodoxy. He is the one who gets blamed for schism rather than those who are really responsible for tearing the Episcopal church away from the Sacred Tradition of Christianity. I continue to think that I dodged a bullet when I left that church 25 years ago.

Speaking of traditions, a story in the New York Times mentions that the Diocese of Pittsburgh has voted to secede in spite of the removal of their bishop, and this has given rise to the predictable squabbles over who owns the millions of dollars worth of property belonging to the diocese. Strangely, the PECUSA is claiming that it should belong not to the diocese, but to the national church. I say that this is strange, but really it isn't. It's strange in one sense, because when Henry VIII split from Rome, effectively bringing the Church of England into autonomous existence, he took all the church's property with him, even going so far as to confiscate properties that had been held by religious orders for centuries. So when a diocese within the PECUSA decides to do exactly the same thing--leave the larger church and take the property too--it is strange that the larger church should object, since without that kind of maneuver the larger church itself wouldn't even exist. On the other hand, there is a sense in which it isn't strange at all, since to allow the diocese to seize the property would be to bow to a kind of old-fashioned Anglican tradition, and if anything is clear in that muddle-headed denomination it's that old-fashioned traditions, like the Sacrament of Matrimony, are always up for grabs and redefinitions. So maybe this is a new-fashioned tradition in the PECUSA: do whatever you want, just so long as you act unilaterally in upending some old-fashioned tradition. The diocese of Pittsburgh acted unilaterally, but it was in defense of an old-fashioned tradition, and that is worse than heresy as far as the PECUSA is concerned.

This is the sort of thing that's bound to happen when your ecclesiology has no sound intellectual tradition to begin with. It's always been a mystery to me why Bob Duncan never converted to Rome--in spite of the thoroughgoing influence he had on me there are many ways in which his thinking has always been somewhat opaque to me. Generally speaking the explanation lies no further than my own density. He is a deeply spiritual and profoundly intelligent person, so I have always assumed that whatever his reasons are for doing the things he does, they are in all probability far better reasons than I have ever had for doing anything. One can, at most, pray that God's will be done in all things, and hope that one is able to discern it when it happens.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Dear Leader

Even though Leni Riefenstahl is no longer with us, it's comforting to know that, should the United States ever be taken over by the Chinese or the North Koreans, we've already got a head start in the propaganda department: