Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Benedict at Auschwitz

"Pope John Paul II came here as a son of the Polish people. I come here today as a son of the German people. For this very reason, I can and must echo his words: I could not fail to come here."

If you read one thing this week, read Pope Benedict's address at the steps of Auschwitz.

Never again, by the grace of God.


You were a cruel, cruel author, sir. My heart goes out to those who waited in agony for your monthly installments of Vanity Fair, while you held aloft that happy ending like Tantalus' fruit tree. The realization that I have yet a hundred pages to go, whilst only your characters' foolishness prevents the denouement, fills me with righteous indignation. I call you out, you blackguard, you rogue!

Can you tell I'm enjoying my summer reading?

Ooh! And now I understand why radioactive decay happens! Ask me any time!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune

The Titanic sails at dawn...

I. Two Books That Are Rocking My World

One is Sam Treiman’s The Odd Quantum, a conceptual overview of quantum mechanics which, unfortunately, I can only recommend to those who’ve taken some post-calculus math. (Any experience of operator theory or partial differential equations will just make this an especially fruitful read.) Previously, I’d been able to parrot what physicists like Stephen Hawking wrote about strange quantum phenomena, but this book is giving me the context to really understand why they should be the case. I’m more excited than ever about taking the Quantum Mechanics course next semester!

The other is the collection of John Paul II’s lectures on the “Theology of the Body”, it’s brilliant, and I think I’m reading it at the right time of my theological development. I’ve in the past been a bit of a rationalist or empiricist even within Catholic theology, discounting mystical explanations in favor of natural-law ones. But of late I’ve been undergoing a change of the basis on which I understand all of this (take for example my recent fascination with earthly things that are images of heavenly things), and I’m hungry for more insight. John Paul the Great has that insight in droves, exploring revelation with a perspicacious eye.

N.B. Since the basis for my theology is changing, while the object of it (fidelity to God through His Church) remains the same, I’m saying things now that I soon realize to be faulty, because I’m speculating on territory that’s newer to me. I think I’ve written some foolish things here and elsewhere; as always, my mistakes are mine and not the Church’s.

II. Great Joy in Hillsdale, IL

It’s with great pleasure that I found I can attend Erik and Katherine’s wedding after all. Marriage is always a great and beautiful sacrament, and such a couple deserves all our congratulations, rejoicing and prayers.

In other news, I’ll be in Chicago by Thursday evening, for the first time since I graduated. Hurrah!

III. You Know You’re A Catholic Nerd When…

I rarely have nightmares (or perhaps, I just rarely recall them), but recently I dreamed that I was involved in a horror-movie plot with grotesque supernatural agents out to kill me (unless, if I recall correctly, I completed their impossible scavenger hunt of sorts). I wasn’t afraid of death in the dream, but I was very diligently trying to find a priest to hear my confession before the fiends caught up with me.

UPDATE: My Real Education When I'm Home
It's amazing at times to watch TV shows I liked as a kid. Some of them are embarassing in the light of adulthood: Saved by the Bell, for example, is a plodding and skilless comedy held together only by the voice of Screech. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, by contrast, is smartly written, acted with real comic timing, and it only gets better as I get older (today I caught the episode where Carlton's guardian angel turns out to be Tom Jones, replete with a plot-advancing duet of It's Not Unusual. Stellar.)

Ditto with Pinky and the Brain, incidentally.

It is I, Don Cerebro, the mouse of La Mancha
I'm blessed with a huge frontal lobe
For a mouse with my power, it won't take an hour
I plan to take over the globe...

Are you pondering what I'm pondering?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Philosophical X-Men

I saw the new X-Men III with my family yesterday. It was entertaining, but that’s about it. However, I did end up in a big argument with my sister about the purpose and limits of governmental authority, and the value of self-expression. (The appeal of comic-book universes is that they often flesh out scenarios of conflict between principles that couldn’t clash so severely in real life.)

More General X-Men Background: This all takes place in a universe wherein people have this gene, “Mutant X”, which is expressed in some of them and gives them mutant powers of differing kinds and degrees. The more powerful mutants have abilities that render them more powerful than a conventional army.

More Local X-Men III Background: In this movie, thanks to a mutant with the power to take away the expression of “Mutant X” in others, a pharmaceutical company has claimed to develop a ‘cure’ which will permanently (and otherwise harmlessly) transform a mutant into a non-mutant.

So the question: Would it be best for the world if such a ‘cure’ were administered on a large scale?

Of course, in the movie there’s a great deal of fear and prejudice towards mutants as being ‘diseased’. But that’s only the straw man to the thoughtful argument in favor of the cure. The President is speaking with Beast (that most intellectual blue-furred mutant) about the situation, and he raises the point that there can be no safety when one man can move a city.

I’m not a Hobbesian by any stretch, but it’s certainly true that the strength of the State needs to surpass the strength of any private entity within it, otherwise the State exists only at the whim of that private entity. In the world of X-Men, we see that the government is mostly powerless to protect its citizens from assaults by Magneto and his forces, and must depend on the goodwill of this private team of mutants to stop him.

The other side, of course, is that forcibly administering the cure to all mutants would be a drastic imposition, and would take away a dimension of innate uniqueness and self-expression from all mutants, regardless of their conduct or character. For this reason (and not a little because we have come to care about these particular mutants), the film’s heart is against the involuntary administration of the cure.

But as I see the film (hundreds of ordinary people die at the hands of mutants who fight the existence of a cure, and hundreds more simply because of the mental illness of a powerful character), if we are talking about human dignity, the right of all to live in peace ought to precede the right of the mutants to their uniqueness and self-expression. Otherwise, we might conclude that the mutants are “superhuman” in a way that makes their lives worth more than the non-mutants. I find this more repellent to human dignity than the other.

What do you think? Am I tyrannical for this? Are there aspects I’m missing?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Tales of Brave Ulysses

On account of trying to be a proper host for my cosmopolitan sister, I assented to an expedition into the city today. San Francisco's geography has in the past buffaloed me to no end, but believe me when I tell you that all I lacked was a map. That having been rectified, look at our itinerary from the day:

Here There Be Dragons

1. We took the ferry line from Oakland to Pier 39. Amazingly, we had a clear sunny view of the whole San Francisco Bay. Katie didn't believe that it would have been so difficult to swim ashore from Alcatraz.
2. We ate a dim sum lunch at Ton Kiang. It's way out there, but I love it. Try the barbecued pork buns!
3. Katie had to shop for a friend in Japan-town.
4. She wanted a place with trendy shopping. I came up with the Haight-Ashbury district, which turned out to be an interesting place to stroll and window-shop. All of the vintage clothes there were far too hip for me; as Katie said, "I think you're a retail kind of person, Pat."
5. Sure enough, she had me improve my wardrobe when we went downtown, with jeans that fit me and shirts I haven't yet faded into oblivion.
6. At last, dinner and gelato in North Beach, before taking bus and train back to Berkeley. It was a good day.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Language of Gender Difference

I. Wherein Patrick Explains That He's Not Sexist

Of all the points of Catholic theology that I've been challenged to explain, the one that I feel least able to articulate an answer to is "Why is the ordination of women impossible?" To that question, there's a sense in which the answer is not difficult, but the words for discussing it have been removed from educated conversation.

Why should that be? The answer is quite sensible. In ages past, many things were said about gender differences that were overgeneralizations, or just simply false (i.e. the notion that it's unfeminine to be intellectually curious), and set up false ideals to which men and women tried diligently to conform. Then, worse, there were many forms that the ensuing gender roles took (in barbarian and civilized cultures) that effectively became power relations of the husband over the wife, or man over woman, and these denigrated the full dignity of women. It is good indeed that we have made progress at quitting those notions, but one effect of that is that we have labeled all gender differences as tools of patriarchal oppression. I fear that we may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

For the notion "men and women are different, and not just anatomically" is a truth obvious to every six-year-old on the playground. In this day and age, I find it hard to imagine that many parents would tell their children to seek out primarily their own sex, let alone to play at different things*. And yet the first-graders, without any external guidance, do precisely that (with some healthy exceptions, of course, and then there are the weird kids who go off by themselves, or the boy who runs around trying to smooch the first-grade girls. But enough about my playground history.)

Ironically, the more artificial learned behavior seems to be not gender difference, but the refusal to talk about gender difference in refined contexts. The "correct" response is to blame any differences in the actions or predilections of men and women on latent male sexism in the higher echelons of any male-dominated endeavor.

*OK, TV commercials for boys' and girls' toys might implicitly tell them that, but I don't think that's enough to cause this phenomenon.

II. Wherein Patrick Does Some Research

Sometimes there is cause for such an explanation, sometimes not. Over the weekend, I became curious about gender ratios in certain fields of study over time. I mean, people have been striving to correct gender imbalance in the sciences since the 1960s. The changes might take a while to magnify, as for example a feedback effect from having female professors in one field encourages more young women to pursue that field. But I wondered about a field like mathematics, which for some reason young women still don't choose to pursue in the numbers that young men do.

Maddeningly, no study I could find over the Internet just gave me the straight numbers over time. So, with little better to do, I sloughed through the files myself to find the numbers of bachelors' degrees at UC Berkeley in each of several fields, split into men and women, from 1965 to 2004**. (IAED was invaluable for finding this data, as was the much more efficient IPEDS system at the NCES, but which only covered 1984 to the present.) I chose UC Berkeley in advance, because hey, it's here, and also because it's been at the forefront of encouraging women in science for these forty-five years, and because its large student body makes enough data for statistical significance.

The sciences I looked at were Mathematics and Chemistry (I also looked up numbers for English, Economics, History and Philosophy), and they told two very different stories. Without further ado:

Mathematics Gender Ratio

Chemistry Gender Ratio

It really amazed me how different the trends were. Over time, with the stereotype "Science is for men" challenged, the number of women in chemistry expanded dramatically until it reached near-equality in recent years. Women may even come to surpass men there. But for some reason, despite the Department's diligent efforts to change the situation, still not half as many women as men choose to study Mathematics, and no real trend is discernable.

Of course, this doesn't signify at all that Mathematics is a "man's field", or that women aren't as capable of mathematical thought, or that there's anything lacking in the femininity of female mathematicians. I've known far too many brilliant women in math for me to claim those things (as for the third notion, yes, most female mathematicians are kind of odd, but no weirder than we their male counterparts!). It just means, in my opinion, a difference in interest in the main. I have no explanation for why this should be so, but the fact that it has remained so dramatic an imbalance at Berkeley is highly suggestive.

**There were four years whose data I couldn't find: 1969-70, 1984-85, 1990-91, and 1998-99. Also, because of large yearly fluctuations, I decided to assign to each year the average value for the four years prior, to emphasize trends rather than statistical anomalies. I made this decision before graphing the data.

III. Wherein Patrick Speculates Speculatively

So where does this lead us? Are perhaps many of the differences between men and women statistical rather than direct? Or instead, are there perhaps many different standpoints from which math is interesting, and some of them are common to men and women, and some of them are nearly exclusive to men? I mean, every six-year-old knows that boys and girls are different somehow (and this, way before sex enters the equation), but the child can't articulate how, and it seems that neither can we at the moment.

We need, I believe, to recapture a language of gender in our thinking. Most gender studies at the moment takes it for granted that gender is a purely social construct with no basis in ontology and no necessary connection to sexuality; I think that this dogma of the academy will pass in time. A real understanding of gender will be far more cautious than the premodern one, far more aware that a sloppy theory of differences can lead to oppression and disrespect.

So, I'm not going to answer the original question completely, because I don't think I can articulate it. As far as the Church goes, the most compelling case (apart from the fact that this is the Sacrament of Ordination handed down from Christ through the Apostles to us, which we have no authority to alter in its essence) is that the priesthood is a sacrament of marriage as well, that the priest stands to the Church as a husband, as in the person of Christ, that he may participate in Christ's sacrifice for the Church in saying the Mass and consecrating the Eucharist. That mystical view, again, will not satisfy non-Catholics, but I don't see why it should. Neither will it satisfy many Catholics, either, which is why I think our theology needs to discuss and ponder matters of gender more deeply.

The Required Frivolous Post

So, yeah, did I mention my sister Katie is visiting me in Berkeley this week? She's getting a real taste of California (by which I mean, she got painfully sunburned from playing Ultimate Frisbee yesterday). On the minus side, she still remembers all my embarrassing stories! DANGER!

Next Wednesday, I'm coming back to St. Louis for two weeks. Wanna hang out? I'm then driving up to Chicago for the Alumni Weekend, June 1-4. Wanna hang out?

Off to proctor my students' final exam. I'll post the gender differences thing now, next up Catholic sexual morality, then maybe gender roles (sorry, Tolstoy, you took it too far).

Oh, and I got (from a despicable scalper) Radiohead tickets in Berkeley! I can hardly wait!

We are accidents
Waiting to happen.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Marriage: Woooo!

Last year I began a series of posts on sexuality. I had the idea of writing a reasoned case why I live by the Church's teachings on sexual matters, but I got bogged down in thinking about side issues, and after a while I felt I'd procrastinated too much to pick up the thread again. Mea culpa, you know?

But now it's time. It's seemed to me that defenders and besiegers of Church teaching are talking past one another, using the same words to mean quite different things. I've been kicking around one formulation of how the whole business is quite different within Catholic thought, how the teachings on sexuality generally derive from a larger countercultural Weltanschauung, and I thought I'd share it with you. If it's not quite right, well, it's my articulation, not the Church's. (And if someone else articulates the same thing better, tell me!)

Generally, we (post)nmoderns have the notion that the social structures around us are best explained by sociobiology: that human beings developed arrangements to satisfy their physical and social needs, and that the arrangements that contributed to survival and propagation survived, while the ones that didn't died out. Marriage, in this view, was just an arrangement for the satisfaction of sexual desires, an arrangement whose stability for child-rearing was greatly beneficial, and thus most of the cultures that survived developed some similar form of marriage. In this view, marriage is of secondary importance; sex is logically prior and more fundamental to human nature.

It is precisely this last sentence that the Catholic Church firmly and solemnly rejects. She holds, rather, that marriage is the more fundamental thing, that human sexuality is about marriage.

In the first place, She can reject the conclusion without getting into the sociobiological debate, without even necessarily contradicting the narrative above. We believe in the God who created the entire Universe, and He could have created it differently if He so chose. It is not absurd to claim (though what I say here does not demonstrate) that we were made sexual beings precisely in order that marriage might be what it is.

And what precisely is it to us, then? If marriage is logically prior to sexuality, then we ought to be able to distinguish the essence of marriage from the sexual relationship. But what would this essence be?

The answer to this, I'm convinced, is the same as the answer to the question of why marriage, of all things, should be a Sacrament. The other Sacraments- Baptism, Confession, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick- all seem so much more church-focused than marriage, which seems more of a personal matter to us. I mean, if marriage is a Sacrament, why not other personal rites of passage? The Sacrament of Elevation from apprentice to master of an art? The Sacrament of Coronation for kings?

(It's worth noting that for this reason, and also because marriage is celebrated by non-Christians as well, Luther decided that marriage was not a Sacrament after all.)

For the Church, a Sacrament is an external sign of an internal grace; it not only symbolizes something, but actually effects that which it symbolizes. (For example, the waters of Baptism symbolize the washing away of sin, and they actually do remit the sins of the baptized!) That marriage is a Sacrament in this sense can be seen in the Letter to the Ephesians. Um, don't panic, but this is also the passage concerning gender roles within marriage. I'll get to that stuff later. I want you, rather, to consider the identification of two different things here:
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.

For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.
At first it only appears that Paul is drawing a lesson from an extended metaphor, but the two verses I bolded signify something greater: that earthly marriage is a true image of the divine relation between Christ and the Church! The Sacrament of Marriage, then, symbolizes that union of Christ and Church, and we believe that it effects what it signifies in that the husband and wife become "one flesh". For Catholics, that's not a nice poetic statement, but a truth: if a marriage is validly entered, then they really are a new creation, one that lasts as long as they both shall live. That is the real essence of marriage, one which can be distinguished (though not separated) from the relationship of sexual love which is the seal and consummation of marital unity, as well as a font of new life.

(Note as well that the Greek word for "mystery" is the one that was used to describe the other Sacaraments, and which was translated into Latin as "sacramentum".)

And from this recognition of marriage as a Sacrament, and the recognition that we are sexual beings in order that we may be capable of marriage (and thus also capable of celibacy, of giving up marriage if so called), flow the "hard sayings" of the Church on marriage and sexuality. But I think that these deserve their own post.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

I. It feels great to be done with the semester. Now I have the summer to which to look forward. (AWKWARD GRAMMAR ALERT: Is that really the proper way to avoid ending the previous sentence with a proposition?)

I'll be teaching (and really teaching, not just running discussion sections) a calculus class for summer session, two hours a day, four days a week. And if that's not cool enough, I'll be taking a reading course on PDEs from the man who wrote the book.

II. Frisbedia, that Michelson House tradition, made its Berkeley debut this week to great acclaim and success. Who would have imagined that playing Ultimate Frisbee outside in Berkeley could be so awesome?

On a related note, I must confess to being a trifle disappointed in the Scav Hunt 2006 list. Nothing on it made me really wish I were back in Chicago for the insanity. Alas.

III.The Medicine Box provides a helpful "cheat sheet" for secular scriveners struggling with Christian terminology:
Heaven is a term referring to the ultimate destiny of a certain number of souls. Depending on who you listen to, heaven is either: where all of us will end up (Origen); where many of us will end up (St. Gregory of Nyssa); where some of us will end up (John Calvin); where a small portion of us have, in some sense, already ended up (John of Leyden); where precisely 144,000 of us will end up (Charles Taze Russell); or where Jack Chick will end up (Jack Chick).
IV. Leaving behind the levity for a moment, Camassia links to a really fascinating story on the remote Piraha tribe of Brazil, whose language- lacking subordinate clauses, concepts of number, and other notions indispensable to the rest of the world- raises fascinating questions about innate language and consciousness.

V. Spurred by my thoughts on the ending of War and Peace, among other things, I'm really gonna try this time and write my thoughts on gender and sexuality. With any luck, we can resolve this thing.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Today is a good day I think for finishing War and Peace!

And perhaps endeavouring to improve myself! (If only it were so easy!)

Monday, May 01, 2006

How Do I Love Berkeley? Let Me Count The Ways

Sunny Day, Sweeping The Clouds Away

My apologies to the Midwest, I still love it too. I'm going to go to St. Louis on May 24th, then head up to Chicago the first weekend of June. But the days here are so often glorious. Yesterday was the math grad student picnic; I joined in for two hours of Ultimate Frisbee and felt like I could have run around for another two. (I threw and caught touchdown passes, and even pretended that they went exactly as I'd intended!) In Chicago, the humidity would have had me sprawled out in agony after half an hour.

I suppose I'm just in a sublime mood. We're teaching the differential equations for harmonic motion in Calculus, and I feel more and more like my heart is a damped and driven oscillator, and the cosmos is approaching the resonant frequency. How's that for strange and nerdy?

P.S. Hold your head up, you silly girl; look what you've done!