Change

Change. The word is on everyone’s lips these days, with it being the byline of the Democratic presidential campaign. But, I want to think about what it might mean for Catholics. How should we as individuals, and how should we as a Church look at change? When is it a good thing, when not? When should we embrace change; when should we hold fast to tradition? There is no easy answer; I’m not even sure that there is an answer; but what I am sure of is that two groups within the Church have it wrong: radical traditionalists and liberals.

I define a radical traditionalist as someone who is unwilling to accept any change within the Church that does not entail returning to past practice. We have gone astray today; everything was copacetic in the past. I agree that we have gone astray today, but I don’t agree that there was ever a golden age. The furore over the usus antiquior (or TLM, or Tridentine Mass, or whatever term you wish to use) is a case in point. Is it a superior Mass to the Novus Ordo? In some ways, yes. In my experience, it fosters an atmosphere of contemplation and sacredness that is usually absent in Pauline Masses. It does a better job of emphasizing the Sacrifice of the Mass. It focuses the congregation more totally on God rather than on the priest. I gladly attend such a Mass once a month at our local cathedral, and happily volunteer to chant or provide other music for it. It serves, for me, as a necessary antidote for the insanity that I occasionally suffer through at my territorial parish.

But to say that the usus antiquior is the Mass of the Ages, the perfect expression of Catholicism, is a bit daft. I suspect that I will be tarred as a modernist heretic, or an incompletely converted Protestant, but the new rite has a number of clear improvements on the old. There is more Scripture, which is an unqualifiedly good thing. It is in the vernacular.* It eliminates some repetition of uncertain usefulness. But it simply offers for the enterprising priest way too many opportunities to turn it into the “Father Bob and Cantor Joan Show.” The baby is usually thrown out with the proverbial bathwater, but that doesn’t mean that the baby didn’t need a bath. I contend, with Blessed Cardinal Newman, that the Church has always changed–“developed“–and that we can usually identify which changes are consistent with Tradition and which ones are not. There is no precedent for holding onto traditions (with a little “t”) for their own sake. We do learn, as time goes by, how to more fully express the Faith handed down from the Apostles. That is not easy, and parts of the Church do go astray, all the time.

But folks who consider themselves good Catholics have been going astray since day one. You’d have to look at Church history through some fairly rose-colored glasses to think otherwise. It has reached the highest levels in the past: some 80% of bishops at one time were Arian; a goodly percentage of people took the side of the Donatists and Montanists; the East and West did split once upon a time. Even Luther had the best of intentions. On the other hand, even if not explicitly heretical, practices of the hierarchy of the Church have left something to be desired. You could even say that we’ve been rather blessed with the holiness of our past several popes when you look back and see how others have behaved. Yes, things, on the whole, aren’t good today. But they never have been.

What this doesn’t mean is that we should just sit back and say that there’s nothing that can–or should–be done against abuses within the Church today. All that I’m trying to say is that we are still members of fallen mankind, and that is not going to change. Who knows how much worse things would be if there had been no St. Athanasius to counter the Arians, no St. Francis to counter the abuses of the Medieval Church, no St. Francis de Sales and St. Ignatius of Loyola to spearhead the Counter-Reformation? Things continue to fall apart; the center still doesn’t hold; but we have to keep trying to prop it up for the future’s sake.

Stay tuned for part two: how liberals also misunderstand change. You may be surprised at my conclusions.

* The ability of some Anglicans, Anglican Use Catholics, most Eastern Catholics and Orthodox, and a fair number of Novus Ordo parishes to create an atmosphere of reverence and holiness without resorting to Latin, Slavonic, etc., utterly and completely defeats the argument that Latin is necessary to maintain reverence in a Catholic Mass. I would, instead, suggest that Latin is useful not because it is holy but because it is impossible for all but a few priests to mess with it to suit their own purposes. Ad libbing in Latin just doesn’t happen. The usus antiquior would have almost no devotees if Novus Ordo were only celebrated with the same reverence as the old rite. Prove me wrong.

The illusions of ideology

There are too many ideas rattling around in my slightly warped mind to stop blogging, so I’m going to try to balance writing stuff with learning medicine, for now…

I made the mistake of watching some of the Super Bowl last night. Not because I wasted a couple of hours watching teams I care nothing about, but because I saw Barack Obama’s latest ad. Here’s the transcript:

We want an end to this war and we want diplomacy and peace. Not only can we save the environment, we can create jobs and opportunity. We’re tired of fear; we’re tired of division. We want something new. We want to turn the page. The world as it is is not the world as it has to be.

That sounds inspiring on the surface, but look a bit deeper and it becomes chilling. There are a lot of things that “we want,” but in reality, can “we” achieve them without making unintended sacrifices? History is riddled with wrecks left behind by idealists of days past. Lenin and his comrades justifiably wanted to break the shackles of centuries of monarchic oppression, but in the process, they killed more people–millions more–than Ivan the Terrible ever contemplated. A professor at the University of Wittenberg–a monk, no less–fanned the flames of religious dissent sparked by a corrupt Medieval Church, leading to countless lives being lost in the “Wars of Religion.” Communists or Protestants, Fascists or Puritans–the labels matter not–men since the beginning of recorded history have sought to make the world other than it is, and the results have uniformly confirmed that the world remains as it is when the battle is over. We in the United States aren’t immune, either: with malice toward none, more than half a million men gave their lives to keep a hypothetical union together from 1861-1865. Step back some four score and seven years before that, and another generation of men fought and died to form that same more perfect union.

What makes such an illusion–that we can change the world–so attractive? I suspect that it’s because we know, deep down, that what Obama said is very true: that the world is not as it has to be. But, there’s a catch: we–on our own–can’t transform it. We, being fallible, can never foresee what our striving to “save the enviroment” or “make peace” or “heal division” will bring. But there is Someone who can, has, and will change the world to as it ought to be. Secular messianism can never replace the real thing.

So, what does this mean? Should we never seek to change anything? Should we accept everything that the world dishes out? Hardly. But, with humility, we should look toward the Cross, and realize that only by imitating Him–being united with Him–can we truly change the world. Our secular politicians should stick in the secular realm rather than invoke utopian dreams. There’s a reason why St. Thomas More called it utopia, not eutopia.

The problem of design

Teleology is taboo in modern science. It’s not hard to see why: purpose implies design, design implies a designer, and a designer is exactly what the predominantly atheistic scientific community does not want to admit. But yet, we use telic language–specifically the language of engineering–to describe concepts in biology all the time. Is it just because we know of no better way to describe systems than by analogy to those that we ourselves have designed? Or is there something deeper to the compelling similarity between “molecular machines” that we discover inside the cell and machines that we use every day? It is such questions that drive Mike Gene’s brave new book: The Design Matrix: A Consilience of Clues, which aims to refocus the neverending debate over purpose in nature away from the black-and-white arguments of days past into a careful investigation of the actual evidence.

Mike (Dr. Gene, I presume?) is at his strongest when describing the intricate details of molecular machinery, and in particular that of DNA replication, mutagenesis, and error correction. He clearly describes several features of cellular replication that are salient to the debate over teleology. For example, the genetic code that we see in almost all organisms today is remarkably optimized. It allows for redundancy that reduces the chance of DNA mutations causing changes in protein structure, but on the other hand, the most common mutations due to the intrinsic chemistry of DNA lead to amino acid changes that increase hydrophobicity, increasing the likelihood of secondary structure and protein-protein interactions. There is also no evidence for precursor codes, and the variants that do exist (such as the mitochondrial code) are better explained as divergent from the universal code rather than primordial remnants. The numerous mechanisms within the cell to ensure the fidelity of DNA replication, RNA transcription, and protein translation, when compared with what we know about codes in general, are also good evidence for teleology in biology. Even more intriguingly, some bacteria have a mechanism for increasing the rate of mutations in their genomes in response to certain stresses, which along with the general trend toward hydrophobicity in proteins suggests that evolutionary mechanisms may be coopted by organisms to increase their complexity and chances of survival. One minor quibble: I would have liked to see some discussion of the “RNA World” hypothesis and how it fits (or doesn’t) with the possibility of evolution of the genetic code.

Mike’s discussion of nanotechnology and its similarities to molecular biology is also excellent. I had not appreciated the degree to which scientists studying nanotechnology are turning to biology for inspiration. He makes an excellent point when he points out that there is a remarkable convergence between the direction of engineering (toward smaller and more complex design) and what already exists within the cell. It is certainly resonable to argue from this evidence that the “molecular machinery” within the cell exhibits characteristics of design, especially as we refine our own designs by studying ever more closely analogous cellular structures.

I also appreciated, on a completely different note, Mike’s discussion of what he calls “inductive gradualism” as a method of studying teleology vs. non-teleology in nature. He presents an “explanatory continuum” between “X could not have possibly evolved” and “X certainly evolved”, as opposed to what is the common approach to these debates: admitting only those two possibilities and not allowing for varying degrees of uncertainty about the telic content of nature. His continuum is certainly better aligned with how scientific research ideally ought to proceed: gathering evidence gradually until a conclusion approaches inevitability, but always being open to other clues leading in a different direction. Contrast that with what is often heard in “ID vs. evolution” debates: on one side, any evidence that remotely points toward “design” or seems to not admit evolutionary explanations is held to “disprove evolution,” while the other side adamantly refuses to accept any telic explanation. Such a dichotomy is, as Mike demonstrates, simply bad science–and more importantly, poor philosophy.

However, in the end, despite my hearty agreement with Mike on the evidence for design in the genetic code and the merits of an inductive approach to studying biology, his book has some serious weaknesses, ironically in the final section where he lays out his “Design Matrix”. He lays out four criteria for discerning design: analogy, discontinuity, rationality, and foresight, and suggests that by scoring various biological structures on these areas we can come up with a “score” that correlates with a probability of teleology. If the four criteria were equal to each other, and if they could be reliably scored by different observers, then perhaps the Matrix would be a valuable tool. But, I fear that it is not:

1. Analogy: Mike suggests that we can infer an increasing probability of design if a biological feature has analogous aspects to things that we know to be designed. On the surface, this seems commonsensical. If we found a molecular machine akin to a rotary engine (the F1-F0 ATPase), then we might conclude that it was designed as was the fascinating engine in my old Mazda RX-7. But, I think that Mike’s excellent observations about nanotechnology subtly undercut the argument from analogy. Our designs ever more closely converge upon nature. Are we unwittingly approaching the same minima in the multidimensional fitness landscapes associated with doing particular kinds of work? I wonder if our own refinements of designs (such as Mike’s example of the Chevy Corvette) mirror nature not because of design per se, but because we are converging upon the best solution to a particular problem.

2. Discontinuity: This criterion is entirely based upon Michael Behe’s concept of Irreducible Complexity. Mike admirably explains the evolutionary explanations that purport to explain away Irreducible Complexity. In the interest of time, I will not go into why I find the possibility of cooption to adequately explain away this teleological inference. If a biological mechanism can be found that has multiple components, which cannot be reconstructed by gene duplication or other mechanisms from components found in simpler organisms, then I suppose that IC would be tenable. But, until that point, scoring features based upon discontinuity with the past is entirely too subjective. Even the genetic code, which is the example nonpareil of discontinuity, may have evolved from a simpler RNA (or other nucleic acid) precursor. My biggest concern with this criterion, however, is not scientific but theological. Another word for a discontinuity is a gap, and I fear that we place the Designer squarely into those gaps when we rely upon this explanation of design.

3. Rationality: Mike lists six features of rationality, which merit separate consideration.

a. Efficiency: While I agree that efficiency–that is, “using the mininum number of parts to carry out an objective,” is a hallmark of good human design, to judge efficiency is tricky business. How do we discern whether a system contains “needless complexity” as a way of making it more likely to be designed? Often in biology, we’ve thought a component superfluous, only to discover its function later. Take, as one example, the ribosomal protein L11. It isn’t a structural component of the ribosome (which for the uninitiated is the “molecular machine” that translates RNA into proteins), but yet is critically important. Free L11 (not in place in the ribosome) acts as a signal to activate the master stress regulator p53, causing the cell to either arrest its growth or die when protein synthesis is disrupted. Yes, the actual number of parts of biological systems often exceeds a bare minimum (the ribosome is an excellent example), but we simply don’t know whether these other parts evolved (or were designed) to have additional functions that we’ve yet to discover.

b. Specificity: While it is true that humans typically design things with “precisely specified interactions,” we are learning gradually that the “messy” and “error-prone” systems in biology are not necessarily the worse for wear. For example, the HIV virus takes great advantage of its error-prone reverse transcriptase, which generates mutations at a rate exceeding the capacity of the human immune system to adapt. “Error-prone” DNA polymerases aren’t particularly good at putting the correct nucleotide opposite its cognate partner in DNA replication, but if they weren’t able to stick nucleotides into less than optimum conditions, replication opposite damaged bases (due to radiation, enviromental pollutants, etc) wouldn’t be able to occur (and we’d be in big trouble as a species). I guess what I’m trying to say is that specificity in design isn’t always a good thing, and being “messy and error-prone” isn’t always bad. The question is whether there’s something in the error-prone system that we’re missing when we judge it not to have been designed.

c. Robustness: Yes, this is a feature of design, but I’m not aware of many biological systems that don’t possess it. Our cells and bodies are remarkably robust.

d. Elegance: I’m not sure why Mike included this, as he admits that it is a subjective measure. As I spend more time studying the inner workings of the body and molecular biology, my definition of elegance changes. I find things that I once thought sloppy, such as the production of mutations in the human genome leading to cancer, elegant because the alternative: slowing down replication to make it more accurate, would make human life impossible.

e. Flexibility: See my discussion of efficiency. Because these two features are usually in balance, it’s hard to judge them either for or against design.

f. Coherence: Mike suggests that a balance of the other five features, that is, a coherent function, is a hallmark of design. I agree, but I question how we are to actually judge this. Do we have a more coherent design of a system to compare against? Does a system (such as mitosis in primitive eukaryotes) actually need to be as carefully precise as it needs to be in higher eukaryotes. If it doesn’t need to be, its “messiness” is not an indicator of incoherence.

In all, my beef with Mike’s hallmarks of rationality is that they’re all terribly subjective. I find that, in studying biochemical systems in great detail, I’ve always proceeded on an assumption of rationality as a way of hypothesizing what a particular feature does. I suppose I give “evolution” more credit than some people, or perhaps on the contrary, we biochemists use a “design inference” far more than we admit.

4. Foresight: To conclude this rambling review, I find Mike’s fourth criterion of design to be actually the only criterion really worth considering, because it is the only one for which there cannot be any non-teleological alternative. Evolutionary processes can give the semblance of rationality; they can give the semblance of discontinuity; they can certainly appear analogous to human systems. However, by definition, they cannot operate with any foresight. If a unicelluar eukaryote’s genome contains proteins that serve it no critical function but are essential for multicellular life, that points toward “front-loading.” If the universal genomic code is so optimized as to both minimize errors and promote beneficial mutations, as Mike suggests, then that points toward clear foresight, particularly as unicellular organisms are hardly as concerned about maintaining genomic integrity as are long-lived multicellular ones. I also find the intricate structure of the genome itself evidence of some foresight, as “junk DNA” is proved more and more full of treasure. Would the timeline of life, if replayed, produce the same results? Gould says no, Simon Conway Morris (in Life’s Solution) says yes, and I think that Mike and I heartily add our votes to the “yes” category.

Perhaps the major difference between Mike and I is that I still operate too much from the “black-and-white” category. But, I’ve found that our colleagues in science are unwilling to even consider “clues” for design if they can be cast in an evolutionary framework. Mike has done us a great service in laying out the evidence he sees for design and an interesting, if flawed, new way of assessing it, but in the end, only pointing the way toward foresight in biology is going to make any headway in convincing the majority of scientists to start considering a Designer. For, when all is said and done, the issue is not one of science at all, but of philosophy and theology. We see evidence of a Designer everywhere who look for Him; but, those who close their eyes will take much to convince. As Emile Zola said:

“Were I to see all the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle.”

There’s nothing new under the sun

First Origen

Now, environmentalist would-be saints.

My Nephew

…at 20 weeks.
babycropped.jpg

Quote of the Day

Would Christianity, as regards truth and peace, faith and charity, fare worse, would it not fare better, without any Church at all, than with a thousand Churches, scattered through the world, all supreme and independent?

-Ven. John Henry Cardinal Newman

Actions have consequences

Something I’ve been pondering on lately:

Every one of our actions could have unintended, serious consequences. History is full of casual events that have enormous causal significance.

Take, for example, the Battle of Gettysburg. If General Lee hadn’t believed an untested spy about the location of the Union Army, or if General Ewell hadn’t been afraid to take initiative and seized Cemetery Hill at the start of the battle, or if Lee had listened to General Longstreet and not attacked the then fortified Union position–not once, but twice, or if Colonel Chamberlain hadn’t made an audacious, nearly suicidal charge into the Confederate ranks to prevent the Union Army from being flanked, then the South would likely have won Gettysburg, and proceeded to Philadelphia or Washington, effectively ending the War Between the States.

What might the North American continent look like today if silly mistakes or outlandish risks hadn’t been taken?

We could take any major event in history and pry it apart like so.

It should make us wonder about our own actions. Sure, we’re not fighting in a major military battle, but what good might we be leaving undone? If we think that, say, one more person praying in front of an abortion clinic might not make much difference, just look back in history. What if, as you stand by the highway praying, a friend drives by who’s struck by your witness as she is agonizing over what to do with her unintended pregnancy?