Monday, December 31, 2007


1. Make new mistakes.
2. Make my fears roughly proportional to the dangers.
3. Put myself where fate can find me.
4. Emote, sympathize, help.
5. Maybe do some friggin' math.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

In another vein:

Our day-to-day life is bombarded with fortuities or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. "Co-incidence" means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time, they meet: Tomas appears in the hotel restaurant at the same time the radio is playing Beethoven. We do not even notice the great majority of such coincidences. If the seat Tomas occupied had been occupied instead by the local butcher, Tereza never would have noticed that the radio was playing Beethoven (though the meeting of Beethoven and the butcher would also have been an interesting coincidence). But her nascent love inflamed her sense of beauty, and she would never forget that music. Whenever she heard it, she would be touched. Everything going on around her at that moment would be haloed by the music and take on its beauty.

Early in the novel that Tereza clutched under her arm when she went to visit Tomas, Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and at the end—may seem quite "novelistic" to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as "fictive," "fabricated," and "untrue to life" into the word "novelistic." Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion.

They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven's music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual's life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty, even in times of greatest distress.

It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Vronsky, the railway station, and death or the meeting of Tomas, Tereza, and the cognac), but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.

-Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Meaning, Motivation and Morals

I haven't read much of Richard Dawkins before; in general, I distrust the quality of today's controversial intellectual celebrities, and much prefer to read the thinkers of yesteryear. But when I came home for Christmas, I found a copy of The God Delusion lying around (I assume that my father had been reading it in the hope of better understanding his son), and I gave it a try. I've been mostly impressed by the book; where I'd frankly been expecting a collection of straw men and shoddy arguments regarding the nonexistence of God*, Dawkins has been rather honorable in confronting the actual objections in a clear manner. (There are a few cheap shots at religion's expense, and quite a bit of egotistical name-dropping, but these are cosmetic flaws as concerns the content.)

That being said, I've noticed a few places where the best reply on the part of religion quite simply seems to be overlooked by Dawkins. The most significant one concerns his main argument, that the existence of an ultimate God is terribly unlikely because complex entities like intelligence are more likely to arise through certain gradual processes than all at once. But I'll have to devote another post to my difficulty both with that argument and, on the other side, with the Uncaused Cause argument for God's existence (for both fall into the same trap, in my opinion). Another oversight concerns the Bible as a source of moral insight and inspiration; I think that he gives short shrift to the exegetical traditions around Scripture as the wellspring of its real moral and spiritual content for believers.

At the moment, though, I want to address an argument of Dawkins' which engages the subject of my last post (as poorly as I expressed it then). In a section of Chapter 6 entitled "If There Is No God, Why Be Good?", he confronts the assertion that religion is necessary for the motivation of right and wrong, but restricts himself to the mercenary interpretation of motive- that a religion only motivates its adherents to do good and avoid evil by promising rewards and punishments in the next life. He afterwards confronts the notion that a God is necessary to know what is good and what is evil, and argues against it on the basis that we do in fact disagree with what was in the past the content of religiously revealed morals.

But there is a third alternative, the one with which I struggled most in the last few months. It is that the existence of a God of the sort believed by Christians provides a guarantee that there is some solution to the problems of morality in human life, even if in some theologies we are not guaranteed to know that answer yet. I had no problem with ethics continuing to evolve (as I had no problem with some amount of development in doctrine), but I had assurance that the moral truth was objective and discoverable (at least with God's assistance)- and this provided psychological comfort when following the commands of Catholic morality became difficult†. The sense that some mode of being resonates with the very cosmos is very satisfying- and it is this that I have at last been forced to surrender by my apostasy.

I hope that I shall be able to hold fast to reasonable conceptions of the good even without this metaphysical assurance that they conform (better or worse) to some objective standard; but I can't pretend I've lost nothing in abandoning that semi-Platonist viewpoint.

* In retrospect, I'd assumed that "Darwin's bulldog" would prefer sensationalism to argument because I'd assumed he rose to prominence in the role of instigating controversy, but in fact he first arrived on the scene as the promulgator/popularizer of a better understanding of Darwin's mechanism of natural selection- the zoologist's equivalent of Stephen Hawking, more or less.

† However, it may or may not be true that this subjective aid provides real help in actual situations; I wonder how psychological studies compare the ability of atheists and theists to hold fast to their professed standards in the presence of temptation.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

So This Is Christmas

Or: No, Virginia. I'm sorry.

Christmas is perhaps a good time to take stock of my cosmos, in the wake of these last few months. Before I finally abandoned the faith, I lived in fear that apostasy would mean despair, insanity, vicious egoism; imagine my surprise to find how little I've changed, and how in some ways I've changed for the good. Prior to my aversion, my social anxiety had developed into a full-blown complex which I would at times disguise with the help of religion- telling myself that my touted awkwardness came not from simple worrying about how others perceived me, but from awareness of the great gap between the believing Catholic and the unbeliever. (No, of course that didn't make sense.) In the months after apostasy, my social anxiety reared its head again and again; but this time I had no choice but to face it down, and I feel that I've begun to make some progress toward proportion in my fears.

I have personal crises now and then- rather dramatic ones- but no longer the protracted existential crises that had become my trademark. In my years of piety, I constantly feared and suspected that I was wrong about it all, whether I dealt with this overtly in anguished crisis or covertly by suppressing my doubts beneath an attitude of total confidence. As much as I would seek and invent patches for all my difficulties with the Catholic faith, there were always too many leaks for me to face it honestly.

And now?

As much as I'd like to say the situation is symmetric between the Catholic faith and materialist atheism, it truly hasn't been so in my experience. The longer I've persisted in unbelief, the stronger the atheist account of reality becomes, and the weaker the justifications of faith. (For example, my youthful essays to the contrary notwithstanding, there is no reason but self-deception to adopt a completely different hermeneutic for evaluating the Gospels' historicity than for evaluating other ancient accounts.) In both my age of piety and my age of apostasy, I've desired to believe, but my reason has pointed away.

I've come to the conclusion that there is no objective meaning to life, no universally binding morality, and I find I'm relieved- but not for the reasons one cynically might expect. What I rejoice in is the freedom to be genuinely altruistic and loving, not simply a prudent egoist.

You see, I've always had it in my mind that there is some objective meaning to life- just as I'd believed there was one true mathematical theory- and it was only a matter of trying to discover its content. But in a world without God, if there were an objective morality, it seems that examination of the material universe would lead only to this content: Survive. Reproduce. Conquer.

How freeing, then, to realize that the universe is quite indifferent to our very survival! There is no immutable law of human action written into the fabric of the cosmos, because we are in fact only important to ourselves. We can indeed compare different accounts of meaning and ethics, on their own terms (à la MacIntyre) and with regard to our experience and understanding; but we should not thereby expect to arrive at the One Correct Answer To Life.

And so, if caritas indeed makes sense as a human ideal, then I can pursue it after all- with only this caveat vis à vis the Catholic ideal, that futile sacrifices are indeed futile. If my noble and selfless act benefits nobody, then it is mere folly.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

This was a triumph.

I'm making a note here:

Perhaps it's true that insensibility to worry is the key to success in certain spheres. It's certainly true that knowing I'd done an irredeemably crappy job preparing for a math presentation helped me present it well; with no way to avoid embarrassment on that front, I didn't have to devote my mental energy to worries. Of course, it's probably better to be insensible on account of confidence than on account of having nothing to lose.

Either way, I think it's time to outgrow my comfortable diffidence in some respects.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Evil, Trust and Futility

Darwin and Scott Carson responded promptly to my last post, and I've since been pondering these matters more deeply procrastinating on the follow-up. My apologies for the breach of argumentative etiquette.

Dr. Carson's post brings up an important point: that the sort of logical possibility needed is not simply that some being or state of affairs could exist, but that it could consistently be created by a God of the sort under discussion. This leads him to propose that free will is created to be uncaused (and not foreknowable), and that therefore it would not be logically possible to create a free cosmos conditioned to be without sin.

I'm not quite convinced that something created could truly be uncaused, so I have my doubts as to the coherency of the proposal; but since I haven't figured out a clear way to argue this, the presumption ought to be that such a thing is a logically consistent defense to the Problem of Evil. However, I don't see how it squares with the Catholic theology that Dr. Carson and others presumably wish to uphold- with the notion of divine providence and any form of predestination, and particularly with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

In particular, if one wants to then affirm that Mary had free will and was without sin, one has to deny that this was truly predestined; in Dr. Carson's theology, one would suppose that God bestowed these special graces on her and just hoped that she would give the fiat at the proper time. For if God could predestine a single free-willed creature for moral perfection, it is hard to imagine how He could not have done so for all. Yet most theologies concerning the Immaculate Conception do include this sort of predestination in her case (see for example Fr. Edward Oakes' recent piece on the First Things blog). I don't rule out the possibility of reconciling all this with a notion of uncaused and unforeknowable free will, but it seems a rather awkward tightrope to walk.

Finally, it intrigues me* that the relevant section of the Catechism seems to support my first alternative, that such a God might well prefer a world with sin, suffering, redemption and damnation to even a freely sinless cosmos:
But why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? With infinite power God could always create something better. But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world "in a state of journeying" towards its ultimate perfection...

Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God "face to face", will we fully know the ways by which - even through the dramas of evil and sin - God has guided his creation to that definitive sabbath rest for which he created heaven and earth.
*By "it intrigues me" I mean, of course, that it gratifies my ego to see that once again my analysis of a theological issue coincides with the historical consensus of many Catholics who've thought more carefully than I. I'm a sucker for intellectual affirmation.

After watching a bit of this discussion play out, I'm more convinced than ever of one aspect of the Problem of Evil: that in addition to the logical question we've been discussing, there is a psychological problem posed by the witness of evil and suffering in our world- and what's more, there is a problem of this sort for both Christians and materialist atheists. (I assume that it raises problems in other religious traditions as well, but I'm even less qualified to comment there.)

The defense which seems to me (from the outside, admittedly) most coherent and consistent with Catholic dogma is, again, that God prefers the cosmic drama to simple harmony, presumably according to criteria better than ours. And yet many find themselves, not merely disagreeing, but discomfited by this idea. I suggest that this is due to the second of the Problems of Evil, the psychological problem of trusting the Creator when experiencing the agony of the Creation. At least on the face of it, a God who prefers this cosmos to one without evil could be more easily blamed for its worst happenings than could a God who is doing the best He can within the constraints of a free will entirely opaque to Him. And it doesn't help one's faith or one's sanity to be blaming one's deity.

The fact that this can be distinguished from the logical problem in no way diminishes its importance; a grieving mother may have a crisis of faith to which the arguments of theodicy are quite irrelevant. And yet answering the latter does not answer the former. I used to say that God's response to the Problem of Evil was to come and suffer the entire gamut Himself. But of course, this only answered the psychological Problem, not the logical One; at issue is not His response to an inevitable evil but His refusal to avert that evil at its very inception.

But I won't say much more about the psychological problem that evil poses for believers, because the surest way to become a smug ass about a change of worldviews is to psychoanalyze those who still hold my previous one. Instead, I want to ponder the problem that evil poses for a nonbeliever like me.

For a materialist atheist, suffering, death, and anything I recognize as moral evil exist without any justified hope of their solution. It is hard to fight a battle one knows to be futile; if in the end this entire Universe will fizzle out to nothingness, if nothing human can survive the heat death of entropy, then what does it matter even whether life on Earth survives or goes extinct?

It's important to note, pace many religious critiques of atheism, that this is in fact a psychological rather than a logical problem. There is nothing inconsistent in having goals and hopes for even a finite and mortal world; if goodness and beauty are human constructs that will one day cease to exist entirely, one can still quite reasonably hope that there will be more rather than less of these in the near and far future. But somehow it affects us on a human level to believe that the story of humanity is one with a dismal ending, no matter how many billions of years it may take.

The modern atheists, it seems, have known this sort of despair for at least a century; and they have tried various strategies to overcome it.

Bertrand Russell's A Free Man's Worship is an example worth noting: using his highest rhetoric, he romanticizes human reason and makes of the cosmos a tragic narrative with Man at the center. This is, of course, a fiction according to his own ideas; there is simply no narrative to be found in the universe. And all other attempts that I have seen to motivate the atheist mind in the face of futility share the same pattern: a noble lie believed by the teller, a fiction that turns the blind Universe into a theater. Two other examples are Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence and Sartre's insistence that we choose our very selves (and thus bear responsibility for the whole of human nature). These, all of these, are fictions by materialist lights; and yet they motivate one to a certain kind of life which is far preferable to that motivated by despair.

But I do not want to subscribe to a fiction, and I do not want to succumb to despair; so I keep hoping that the next ideal will stand my scrutiny. I suppose that in the realm of the mind I'm the worst kind of romantic: the disillusioned one.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Problem of Sin

It seems that the Problem of Evil has been kicking around the Catholic blogosphere again, so I planned to do a little Philosophy Karaoke and explain why I think it has more substance than Darwin Catholic or Scott Carson accord it. However, I found that what I had to say had already been addressed by Michael Liccione in a perspicacious essay well worth your time.

I do want to expand, though, on something which Dr. Liccione remarks and which I think others have missed: that the free will of created beings is not a defense against the problem of evil, because we could have been created to freely choose the good. Liccione writes that our free will might have been circumscribed to choose between good alternatives, rather than between good and evil; I assert something stronger- that we could have been equipped with the full range of free will (whatever that is supposed to mean) and yet created such as to always freely choose the good.

If it is logically possible for a being with free will to always choose the good (as Christians generally affirm), and if an omniscient, omnipotent God knows in the act of creation whether a free-willed being will in fact do so, then it is perfectly possible for such a God to create a being who always freely chooses the good (and in fact Catholics believe that their God has done so- ever heard of Mary?). It is thus possible for such a God to create a cosmos full of freely innocent beings, rather than freely fallen beings.

So arguing that God allows moral evil out of respect for free will is a red herring, since respect for free will does not preclude a universe without sin. There are, then, only two viable defenses of the existence of sin. The first is that God might have created, in addition to this universe, every possible universe which is better than ours in that regard; thus He would be absolved of the charge of creating a worse world rather than a better one. But very few Christians seem willing to believe in such an extravagant multiverse.

The second defense is significantly more intriguing: that perhaps an infinitely good God prefers a cosmos of sin and redemption to a cosmos of innocence- even to the extent, if there is a nonempty Hell, of preferring a cosmos with unredeemed sin to one without it. This is the track that Liccione follows in his essay, eventually asserting that such a preference is a mystery; and I think that it is the track that an honest Christianity has to take, however discomfiting it may seem.

As for me, why should I after all care about the philosophical defense of a God I no longer believe in? Well, for one thing, I find the discussion interesting in itself; more importantly, I prefer that people examine their thinking and believe things that make more sense rather than less (so I would rather you subscribe to an old, developed, battle-tested theology than one of the naive hybrids of religion and modern Western culture, but I'd rather have you do the latter than subscribe to a religion hermetically sealed off from the rest of human knowledge). I may be a defective apostate, but I just don't feel the need to scoff.

N.B. I'm indebted to the philosopher J.L. Mackie for the original line of thought (see The Miracle of Theism), although I depart from his analysis with the two possible defenses; in particular, he dismisses the second out of hand for no reason other than its strangeness to him. I should also note that the problem of evil played no significant role in my aversion from the Church, and is only something I thought seriously about thereafter.

P.S. Next up: happiness and noble lies...

Monday, November 05, 2007

The starting point for philosophical reflection is not, as some had supposed, some state of total equanimity with respect to every question. This neutrality is what we should like to have; yet it is not only unattainable in practice, but a complete fiction in theory. The very criteria by which we accept some forms of inference rather than others do not come to us a priori; they themselves must have been determined to some degree before the inquiry began.

We do, however, have a starting point, albeit one that embarrasses too many of us: it is the cultural and intellectual milieu we have been educated in. Our very modes of thought do not derive from ourselves in the first place; and refusing to acknowledge this is the most naive self-deception. Consider the youthful rebel who casts off the shackles of his parents' ideology and revels in the newfound freedom of his thought- which happens to precisely match that of his new friends, or the book he has just read for the first time. He is no freer than he was before, and in fact is much less well-equipped to think critically in the new terms he has just learned than in the old ones he has rejected.

This is by no means an encouragement to retain all one's old opinions and patterns of thought; for in fact, there are ways in which progress is made. Thankfully, some of the modes of thought that we have been raised with can effectively critique, contradict and transcend themselves. Socrates did not attack his interlocutors with ideas foreign to Athenian mores, but with those very ideas they had been raised to accept. For my part, I found the seeds of my own apostasy not in any external critique, but in the Catholic account of reason and the unity of truth (although other paths in Catholic thought do not lead where I have gone, and it is quite possible for one to remain an intellectually honest Catholic).

And I want also to stress that I am no relativist; I say that we should consciously begin our foundational inquiries within our own intellectual culture not because each approach is valid, but because we might as well acknowledge that this is in fact where we begin, whether we like it or not.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

transports, motorways and tram lines

The road to heartbreak is sometimes paved with lilies.

Lesson 1: One sublimely romantic week does not mean that fate is on your side.
Lesson 2: Reserve is the better part of honesty.
Lesson 3: Sometimes you're not what she's looking for, and there's nothing you can do.
Lesson 4: Sometimes you had a chance and simply screwed it up.
Lesson 5: Sometimes you will never know which of the above was the case.
Lesson 6: The cosmos does not have to conform to your dreams.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The ugly part of recovering my sanity is realizing what I've done. I've just had several weeks- perhaps even the last two months- in which I've succumbed alternately to mania, depression, panic attacks, obsession, and paranoia. I am not speaking metaphorically or exaggerating.

This- at least the extreme to which it's gone- is not something I'd ever gone through before. I've not yet decided how best to start dealing with it, except to start taking some advice.

UPDATE: In hindsight, as usual, I've been a little too melodramatic here. My housemate who's studying to be a clinical psychologist assured me that I hadn't actually gone crazy, and I haven't wreaked the sort of devastation in social life that I'd feared. I think.

But I still don't know whence the anxiety and other moods hailed from, with the intensity that they had. I'll work on it.

Friday, October 19, 2007


All's well. That's all.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

I'm glad I still have my wonder and awe, because sometimes nothing else is appropriate.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

When It Rains, It Pours

You'll notice two new posts below this one, neither of them argued with particular care. I've decided that I just need to get the ideas out there, in any form, and start to digest them further (with your help). Waiting until I'm happy with what I write has bought me two weeks of silence.

So, yes, this is the "rough draft" defense of my new and contentious ideas. I freely acknowledge this.

To Err (In A Manner of Speaking) Is Human

As stated before, I've been doing some rethinking, not simply of ethical and political conclusions, but of the very way in which I approach the questions.

It is, I suppose, characteristic of many mathematicians that we seek only answers of a certain form, even to entirely nonmathematical questions. To earn even my respect, an ethical or political theory had to derive from explicit first principles and valid laws of deduction. But as I've reflected, I find something very wrong with most axiomatized ethics, something which is handled quite better by the old illogical traditions.

In a mathematical proof, one begins with a set of assumptions, each of which ought to appear in the proof (explicitly or via an intermediate result). If you haven't used one of your assumptions at all, then the theorem is more generally applicable than it was stated, or (as is more often the case) the proof is mistaken.

What does this have to do with anything?

There are many ethical and political theories, for example Kant's categorical imperative or Locke's Second Treatise on Government, whose philosophies stand in respect to psychology and sociology as Laplace's cosmology stood in respect to God: they have no place for such hypotheses, they would give the same answers regardless of how human beings are actually constituted to think and act. And this, I think, disqualifies these theories from constituting either a complete way of life or a viable government, if adhered to completely. We are not Kant's universal rational agents, we are not simple economic beings maximizing some concrete utility, and a system that treats us as such will be without answer to a vast range of human behavior.

For example: it has been shown that people will forgo something to their own advantage if they feel that it also benefits someone else (even a stranger) unfairly (see the ultimatum game), and it is well-known that we make competitions out of things that give us little advantage (such as who passes whom on the highway, when the real difference in travel time is often negligible). The best explanations for these and other phenomena are ultimately sociological in nature: not much has changed in human nature from the tribal days, when allowing oneself to be beaten or taken advantage of even once would be known by others and lead to further trouble.

And before we criticize these departures from rationally calculated standards as something in all cases to be overcome, let us reflect on Kant's proclamation that not a single lie could ever be justified, not even (to use the canonical example) denying to the Nazis the presence of a Jewish family in one's attic. We generally find this conclusion to be wrong, and so those of us who want to make a similar generalization about lying are forced to invent sloppy arguments that would justify these "good lies" within a system that prohibits all lies. For example, "mental reservation" is a terrible attempt to escape this problem, because it could be applied as well to the ordinary situations where we prohibit lying:

Wife: "Are you sleeping with your secretary?"
Husband: "No, of course I'm not" (at this instant, that is.)

I'm not interested in the case of lying so much as the general fact that all simple philosophies tend to have their "hard cases", and they either have to bite the bullet on unpalatable conclusions, or construct ad hoc arguments that escape them. The ones that do the latter are generally less dangerous.

Moreover, we have a certain level of acceptance of social roles that goes well beyond any rational estimation of expertise or power; the police officer's social (and often moral) authority is as vital to his effectiveness as his official authority. The situation is even clearer with, say, priests. And a society that would be built without any social roles at all (the perfect envisioned society of some libertarians I know) is disarming itself of the most necessary of all tools for maintaining itself.

The old traditions of morality and statecraft, with all their contradictions, their ad hoc attachments, their messiness, have proven vastly better adapted to survival than their neatly reasoned descendants. Every other generation since the Enlightenment has prematurely written the obituary of the Catholic Church, and been amazed to see it outlast the appointed successor in the realm of ideas. And this, I have come to think, is due to the way that the aged faiths and systems contain implicitly so many things that resonate with actual human nature- not often by design, but by the necessities of survival in the hearts and minds of men. The Marian doctrines have long been criticized by those who would rationalize the Faith, but their real significance lies in the resonance of a loving Mother in the cosmos. And it has borne fruit for generations in inspiring great devotion, both among those who identify with Mary (the old ladies praying novena after novena for their children and grandchildren) and those who seek her (Pope John Paul II, who lost his own mother at a very early age, made Marian devotion a keystone of his sermons, his proclamations, and even his motto: "Totus Tuus").

But if a vast, messy tradition is usually superior to an oversimplified theory, what would be better yet is something fully true. And when it comes to finding such a thing, there are two principles I've come to think are relatively sound:

1. While our thinking about ethical and political theories should be as consistent as we can make it, it is not necessarily a flaw of one of these theories that it fails to be consistent.

2. Because we are, in fact, a particularly constituted sort of being, the principles on which a sound ethical or political theory is constructed should involve the input of the "narrative disciplines"- history, psychology, and sociology.

Yes, I've changed in regard to sociology. I'd once characterized it as completely unscientific, totally fabricated, and useless to the rest of the world. Well, I've now cleared the prisoner on the latter two charges, and pardoned it on the first. I still don't place too much trust in the way that the study of sociology is currently conducted, but I now think that it is an absolutely essential enterprise to the understanding of human life.

Doubt and Surrender (Rough Draft)

The psychological resonances of religion are often more complicated than many atheists acknowledge, in particular where doubt is concerned. Yes, there is in many religious people a sense of doubt as a sin (and a corresponding urge to denial of doubt), but in the brightest and most devout, there sometimes is an integration of their very doubts into their faith.

What the secular press missed in the case of Mother Theresa is the same lesson one finds in Therese of Liseux's Story of a Soul, a pattern that has been recognized among professed religious for centuries. One's very doubts of God's existence become an occasion for deeper surrender in faith; just as the religious would offer up their physical suffering as a gift to the Lord, Therese would cast herself as a little child, offering to her Father all that she had- her doubts and failures. Mother Theresa, likewise, threw herself into the business of love with greater abandon the more she was overwhelmed with doubt, and one hardly has to point out the epic results of this self-offering.

Those times when I myself followed this path were indeed the best of my Catholic life, the times when charity and beauty were very real things; and the times when I could not look at my doubts in a forgiving light led either to a self-absorbed despair or a vehement denial of those doubts. Or, at last, to apostasy.

Looking back, I cannot say that the offering up of doubts is any reliable means to the truth; and yet it is a means to much human good. Even atheists face a similar conundrum, when one comes to it: how can we behave as idealists in a world of brutal fact, or act incrementally for the good when one knows it won't cause all others to do the same, or sit in awe of beauty while aware that beauty exists only in the human mind? The oft-discussed "cheerful nihilism" can only exist, or so it seems, by a similar act of internal surrender, setting aside one's best awareness for the sake of what is good.

Pardon all of the above for being rhetorical, unsupported, and deeply flawed. I think that there is something very important within it, nonetheless.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


I'm sorry for waiting so long to follow up- especially as I've left so much completely unclear. I haven't been able to organize my thoughts that well, so pardon the format of what follows.

For a man so obsessed with logical consistency, my self-portrait is rather a mess of contradictions.

I am a rationalist Romantic, a secular contemplative, an apostate who still loves his Church.

And I do still love the Catholic Church, even though I cannot believe Her about everything. A child's First Communion, the combination of reverence and everyday ease with which a boy or girl accepts what they take to be God Himself (insofar as they understand what is happening), that is still a sublime moment. The chanted "Adoro Te Devote" is still the most perfect artistic expression of purity of heart that I can conceive of. The darkness of Mother Theresa's prayers may not signify to me all that it once would have, but it still contains within it the whole of human heroism in the face of darkness.

So I am still going to Mass- in fact, I'm still in the chant choir. The parishioners at St. Margaret Mary's have been exceptionally good to me, even now; mostly converts themselves, they know what it is like to be on the other side and what it is like to undergo such turmoil. They think of me as a young fool, of course, but I have no proof that I'm not one.

I make no promises about what I'm going to believe in another few years, except that I'll strive for intellectual honesty all along the way.

It seems that the man on the street has no one belief system, but rather a tangle of different ones (usually incompatible) from which he picks and chooses his ideas. Philosophers from Socrates on down have been aghast at this muddle: how could one hope to find any truth starting from a medley of fictions?

Of course, the philosophers have been known to go mad at a higher rate than the man on the street.

I'm beginning to suspect that beliefs simply play a different role in most lives than they do in mine- that they are most often used to give context to one's life, meaning to one's actions, reassurance of one's fears. If those are to be preserved, perhaps it's unwise to peer too closely- just as, if one wants to be happy eating bratwurst, one shouldn't look inside a sausage factory. Double standards and contradictions, so often pointed out as signs of insincerity or hypocrisy, may be just what is necessary to get by.

And yet here I am, the radical. I can't refrain from asking "But is it true?", no matter the consequences, no matter how dim the prospects of reaching a satisfactory answer.

In agreement with MacIntyre's After Virtue, I have given up on certain aspects of the Enlightenment project- in particular, Kant's attempt to deduce morality from a picture of human beings as abstract moral agents. It all seems a mess of question-begging generalizations, and you can count me as a disappointed ex-Platonist, if anything.

The two moral philosophies that tend to make sense to me at present are some updated version of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and some less nationalistic rendition of Nietzsche's corpus. The verdict is still out, even provisionally, at least until I finish a few more books.

In the meantime, I'll be keeping to my old morality until I have sufficient reason to conclude the truth is otherwise. I hope that's sensible.

I had turned prosaic out of skepticism, but it's not good to stay that way. One doesn't need to be a Platonist to respond to this world with wonder every now and then.

Monday, August 27, 2007


Hello again, faithful Reader. It's been several months since I've posted anything of philosophical or theological substance here. Some of you may have guessed the reason; some of you have been told. Put briefly, in the past year I have abdicated my Catholic faith; I have come to the conclusion that I can no longer believe in a God at all. It hurts me to let so many of you down, and I am sorry for that; but I have to follow my best perception of the truth.

I've waited to discuss my apostasy here for two key reasons. First, I wanted to give this discernment the test of time and stability, to let my thoughts mature through my different moods, to separate this from all the anxieties of the summer (in particular, the qualifying exam). I know myself too well to suppose that my philosophizing occurs in a vacuum. Secondly, I've delayed the public revelation so that I could first discuss it in private with many of the important people in my life. It's been two months of painful conversations, but I've been awed and honored to find that most of my friends have remained with me nonetheless. (If I haven't spoken with you yet, I'd very much like to- and it's just random chance that I didn't find the opportune or inopportune moment to bring this up before.)

Why, then, should I bring this up in public at all? I have no desire to cause scandal or to undermine anyone else's faith (not that I even feel myself capable of arguing another out of religious faith). Do I want to justify myself to the many? Perhaps; I can be a bit self-absorbed, after all. But mostly, I know that news of this sort eventually gets around to many people, and I wanted to write something to publicly account for such a shocking turn.

How could I move from such obvious and sincere conviction of the truth of the Catholic faith to complete unbelief in God? And why should I have done so now, after ten years of devotion and study, after building my life around the Church? It is that history that led some to question the veracity of my doubts at first, led my father to worry that this was a sign of depression or mental illness (he's since assured himself that I'm well on that front), and led at least one atheist friend to state his complete confidence that I would soon revert. But that history is different in reality than it appeared to others.

There was always a maelstrom deep beneath the waves, whether it showed on the surface or not; my adamantine conviction in argument stemmed from an internal struggle against deep-seated doubt. I have long oscillated between two stages of mind: a manic one, in which I flit from epiphany to epiphany, convinced each time that I have finally found the key to the cosmos; and a despairing one, where my doubts joined with all my worldly fears to paralyze me. I don't ascribe this tendency to the Church, but the way in which I dealt with it was patently unhealthy. Unable to abide that doubt, I would push it back with acts of will- becoming the zealot you've known and (sometimes) loved.

Looking back through old journals, this pattern has been with me for as long as I've been serious about the Church. In my senior year of high school, I was vehemently denouncing my predisposition to "fashionable intellectual doubt"; at seventeen years old, I wrote that I knew enough of God (mostly from charismatic experiences) that I no longer had reason for any criticism of the Catholic faith. But my doubts recurred every few months, great and terrible, and none of my strategems of piety were of any lasting avail. I saw them as demonic, as a personal failure, as everything but honest doubt.

In the last three years, I grew increasingly afraid of confronting the other side of any argument, from sacramental theology to animal psychology, and so my two responses to a non-Catholic viewpoint had become nearly flight-or-flight: either a total battle with professed contempt for the other argument at every point, or a silent retreat with a prayer for the misguided soul on the other side. Fear of doubt had made me an intellectual coward. The last doubting periods had in fact verged on depression. At last, this spring, I asked myself whether these doubts were something other than just a sin- whether they might have perceptive content after all. Just so asking was terrifying for me, for the reason above; but I decided for once to confront them on open ground. And there began my apostasy.

Of course, the above isn't an argument at all- it shows rather that the way in which I practiced the Catholic faith was a bad one. I simply feel that I had to give an account of that history that shows why this rejection isn't the huge discontinuity in character that it appears. The reason itself that I can no longer believe in God is rather boring, to tell the truth. The key notion for me, as I wrote in prior posts, was the need for a sign or reason prior to an act of faith- because the reasons I had come to believe ten years ago had nothing to do with truth or falsity (rather, they stemmed from the ideal I wanted to emulate, the place where I wanted to belong, the meaning I wanted to ascribe to my actions and thoughts, etc), and my continued faith was really due to those acts of will. Neither should suffice as a reason.

I don't mean a proof; at this point, I'm convinced that all the arguments for and against the existence of the Catholic God are not actually proofs- first, because I'm acquainted quite well with all the ones bandied about today, and find them greatly wanting at certain points, and secondly, because one quality of a valid proof is that anyone capable of understanding it will be forced to accept its validity, and the existence of intelligent and well-read believers and nonbelievers therefore shows that we lack an understandable proof. Rather, the arguments and counterarguments make more sense (and are in fact primarily used) to assuage the doubts of those who already hold the conclusions- to provide a rationalization for existing belief or unbelief, rather than a reason for it.

I searched, rather, for a sign of or reason for believing the Catholic faith among all the possible explanations of the cosmos. I'm greatly sympathetic to the notion of a 'leap of faith', but if there are no true criteria for making one such leap rather than another, then we are speaking of an absurd act of will rather than any real hope to discover truth. I sought something- in the world, in my experience, in culture- for which the Catholic explanation really did make more sense than any atheist account. In times before, I'd claimed such signs, but now I find each of them to be readily explicable in other terms, to fit within the worldview of an atheist with some knowledge of history and psychology.

I'd claimed, for example, that the virtues of the saints were so far out of the realm of human possibility that it made more sense to believe in supernatural assistance. But my understanding of the realm of human possibility in the service of an idea has widened greatly- see Gandhi, for one notable counterexample whose life is better documented than most others. I'd asserted that the very real beauty of Catholic art and of the Mass was such a sign- but then, had another cosmology have been universally held in the West at the time of the Renaissance (or the High Middle Ages, for music and architecture), why could it not have produced the treasures of beauty instead? (The methods of history simply don't allow for such a demonstration.) Friends have argued from the compelling power of the Gospels- but I find there only what I wish were true about the cosmic order of the world. I long ago left behind my argument from private religious experience: those feelings can be socially inspired (and within the charismatic Catholic community there is every sign of their being so), and have no intrinsic connection to the Catholic faith (one finds spiritual ecstasies in other faiths as well). I have argued at times from the unique history of the Catholic Church, but there the picture of it as the Bride of Christ has as many complexities as the picture of it as a combination of historical factors (with one factor being the singular character of its Deposit of Faith, fertile for both devotion and philosophical inquiry). And I had argued, finally, from the human experience of Beauty which seems to point to a reality greater than itself- except that it leaves no specific clues as to the nature or existence of that reality, prior to interpretations. Again, the desire to believe in a certain overall order to human life doesn't imply that there is such a one; pace C.S. Lewis, Nature has no guarantee that every natural need is satisfiable.

Again and again, the acceptance of the Catholic framework was logically prior to my recognition of any signs; were I raised a Jew, Buddhist, Mormon or animist, I would have my own collection of such signs. They were not, then, what they professed to be; and holding the Catholic faith to be true would no longer be intellectually honest.

There were, of course, reasons of a fundamentally different sort to remain Catholic: the life and relationships I have formed within the Church, the thought that religion makes one a better human being, Pascal's Wager and the like. These all have one thing in common, though: they appeal to my desire for the Good, rather than argue for Truth. And their appeals have merit; I do not feel that I will be happier outside the Church than I was within, and I have no guarantee that following my perceptions of the truth will meet with any sort of success whatsoever. Here, for the first time, my best conception of the True and my best conception of the Good diverged. But it should come as no surprise to you, knowing my radical and perhaps ascetic nature, that I would choose the merest hope of the Truth over any amount of the Good. Perhaps this too is absurd, but I could do no other.

Soon, I will tell you more about my present framework (hint: quite skeptical, but dissatisfied with skepticism), what I'm doing to move forward (hint: reading pretentious authors), and where I will wind up (hint: I don't know). But that will wait for another day.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Best thing on Facebook:

A profile for Nietzsche (well, sort of) including the following:

Favorite Music: wagner before he sold out

Sunday, July 22, 2007

I couldn't help myself, you know? This is from the Monterey Aquarium, where Mom and I went during her visit last week. It was a blast having her in California; besides the Monterey trip, I showed her Fisherman's Wharf and North Beach, we visited friends in Moraga, we had an awe-inspiring meal (exquisite foie gras, unbelievable roast duck, and an adjective-defying orange and ginger pot-de-creme) at the restaurant owned by (deep breath) Katie's boyfriend's dad's brother and sister-in-law, and I helped her practice her lines for Plaza Suite (Mom's getting back into theater after a few decades' hiatus) with my Tolstoy finger puppet in the role of her husband.

In other news, now that I have my scanner working, I can show you the flash cards I made in the last two weeks of studying before the qual. I'd resisted the idea for a long time, until I realized just how dire my straits were: with two weeks to go, I couln't remember how most of the proofs went in even the most general scope. So I went kind of berserk with the index cards; there are about 60 of these. Take a look:

Friday, July 13, 2007

It wasn't pretty, but I passed.

As you can see, my panic these last few weeks was kind of necessary after all (even though nobody asked me about the really awful stuff- it was all a trick) so that I would be ready for the qual. In the process, I unlocked some mathematical beast from the deeper recesses of my subconscious (you know, like Sing unblocking his chi), and learned more in a few weeks than I had in all the time previous. It remains to be seen whether I can replicate these results without the panic state.

Other blogging to resume in good time. Tonight is earmarked for BEER.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

That's it, I'm grounding myself.

Until next Friday the 13th, also known as my personal mathematical Ragnarok. Wish me luck.

Monday, June 25, 2007


And, welcome back. With my qualifying exam less than twelve days away, I want to reassure you that I've been devoting myself wholeheartedly to studying. I really do want to reassure you, but I can't. I've been having too much fun. It's enough to make a man not go crazy.

I did my San Francisco tour guide imitation again, leading several friends from the Golden Gate Bridge to Coit Tower and beyond. I went to New York for sister Katie's 21st birthday party in Central Park. I introduced my parents to Indian food for the first time. I learned "Circle Rules" and suffered only minor scrapes. I ran into the Golden State Warriors execs on the way back to Oakland (and the woman I told about this turned out to have attended Baron Davis' birthday party). I danced swing in Redwood City. I ate bacon-wrapped pork and corn on the cob, and drew a royal flush in poker. I saw Ratatouille (good, not great), tried creme brulee for the first time, went swing dancing again, etc, etc, etc.
Still, I think I'll be OK in the end; I have been studying pretty regularly, despite the above. It won't be pretty, but I'll survive.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


It feels odd to talk about contingent matters again, but be that as it may...

Summer plans are coming into focus. I'm going to New York again for Katie's birthday in a few weeks. She's in the process of saving up for her long-awaited semester in Paris! Everybody say, "Awww."

My qualifying exam is set for Friday, July 13 (in the areas of Harmonic Analysis, Probability Theory, and Spectral Theory). What doesn't kill me only makes me stronger, right?

After that, I'll be relaxing; I'll come back to St. Louis for the end of July and beginning of August (so I can see my mom take up community theater!) before school restarts in late August. If any of you might like to visit me in the Bay Area when I'm around, drop me a line and there might even be a room here in the house for you!

Speaking of life at Chez Barbara, you may recall the 8-by-11-foot room I moved into two years ago; it's served me quite well, but I thought it was time for a change. So I moved upstairs! Here are my new digs:

Oops! Let's try that again, shall we?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Not Giving Up

In real life, that is. I think it was a mistake to lay it out here, daring people to come and argue for my soul, causing shock and worry among friends, and breaking promises without justification.

So I'll continue to work through this in private life. If you'd like to talk to me there, I'd more than welcome it. But I'm not going to do a series of posts here on ONB after all- I can't afford to be self-conscious about the articulation of my thoughts at a time like this, and publicly trawling for concern and sympathy is no good for me.

Sorry for my unreliable and fickle ways.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Doubt, Part II

First, a few disclaimers for this series (I hope) of posts:

1. I am not, as you know, the man of strongest willpower. My beliefs vacillate hourly as my mood swings. I'm not going to spell out where I'm leaning, though from my style you'll probably have some inkling each time I write. For I don't want to give you false hope or false despair caused by a momentary burst of feeling- I want to see this through as far as it goes. (But again, that's not guaranteed to happen; I may not have the fortitude to stay in tension like this. If I either sweep the crisis under the rug again, or give up on thinking about the question, I will have failed; so let's take this crisis a day at a time.)

2. It has been suggested that I'm causing scandal by making this public. I can see the argument for that, but I don't think that I'm doing great harm by being honest. It's not as if ONB is an inspiration to many Catholics- this blog has been a curiosity, at best. In any case, while I'm going through this, I want to make it clear that I won't be offended if you take me off of your blog rolls so as not to lead more people to confusion.

As I wrote in the comments below, far be it from me to take all of you for granted- and I know that's precisely what I've done in my last post, commanding you to talk me out of this. To read your comments, your thought and concern, is to be drawn inexorably back toward the Faith, but for the one dangerous counterweight that has weighed heavily on my mind:

Belief (not faith) is a social act even more than it is a rational act. Now, this statement has nothing to say about the truth or falsity of a belief's content (and this is the non sequitur certain public atheists are much too fond of making- that positing a motivation for a belief is the same as disproving the belief), nor even does it predict what beliefs a person will adopt (there is always some choice of social group involved in this day and age, and choosing a vision of the Good/True/Beautiful goes hand in hand with entering the community that holds it).

What does cause me angst is my religious history, seen with a dispassionate eye. I conformed myself, first to the 'charismatic' Catholicism of LifeTeen when the group at my parish accepted me (it wasn't the only group to which I sought to belong, and other social groups were mutually exclusive with this one), then to the 'Catholic Nerd' collective at Calvert House (by dint of which I repudiated my earlier liturgical preferences with scorn), becoming more and more traditionalist as I sought to impress this person or that.

Now, when I look at the foundations of my act of faith, I don't see any of the arguments that I put forward so ardently in Uchicago discussions, as I sought respect and approval from my counterpart even more than I sought Truth. I see the people whom I wanted to imitate, people who looked like they had real passion and understanding. (Some of these people are even still Catholic.)

So, in this time of crisis, I'm wary of all the social factors I can imagine- on the one hand, the desire not to disappoint friends and family- on the other hand, the desire to see myself as strong enough to escape their pull if I so choose- and many more, including the worry that I'm overcompensating for one or more of these factors. Once one feels that psychological and social factors are affecting one's reason, it becomes an entirely new task to try and think clearly. I'm shooting for "not going crazy".

If God not only exists, but came to us in human form, showed himself to human beings in the most direct and visceral way imaginable, a man crucified and yet alive, then I need to see in this world and in my experience something pointing to Christ, some great sign that He has left, something far stronger than the accidents of social life and an absurd (because unmotivated) faith.

You may say that the Visible Church is the sign, that She has been left standing for two millennia where any human institution would have collapsed, that She alone could be led by men as awful as the Borgias and regenerate Herself nonetheless, that She alone could teach for twenty centuries and not once contradict Herself.

Some of this is very strong indeed. How is it that the Church survived the fall of Rome- a fact which fails to amaze us precisely because we know it happened? Religions have survived the fall of civilizations, yes, but a priesthood and institution transcending nations? It is linked, of course, to the Church's hierarchical nature and the unity fostered by the Ecumenical Councils- but note that Christianity alone had these! Christianity alone had this faith in philosophy, in argument, as a means of reaching the Truth- for prose, where other religions would only dare use poetry.

So this at least is something. The Church is singular in some (overgeneralized) ways. But She also has made some very strong claims about Herself.

The non-contradiction of Catholic dogma, for one thing, I don't find as persuasive as I once did. The Popes are, after all, educated men surrounded by educated men; they would have known if they were inescapably contradicting prior dogma, and doing so would have given medieval monarchs cause to contravene the Church- so it is not surprising how generally careful Popes have been in making doctrinal statements.

Even so, in some cases it is hard not to see them as having painted themselves into the corner. I have tried, and in the past I thought I had succeeded, at reconciling Unam Sanctam with the more generous versions of extra ecclesiam nulla sallus held by the Church in the last century. In my junior-year attempt, I conveniently ignored the fact that the last line was not "subject to the Church" but "subject to the Roman Pontiff", which is much harder to explain away as a reference to the Church Invisible. Usury is another example wherein the response to an alleged contradiction is to stare at it until the words don't mean what they seemed to mean anymore.

And to say that it just fits with God's mysterious nature to allow us a simple and strict rule, then later allow us to reinterpret it in a more generous manner- well, OK, that's not too different after all from what the Church believes about the Old and New Testaments.

I seem to be making connections again, but I'm still suspicious. I'll sleep on it, and (of course) head to church in the morning. But it's hopeful, if not Balaam-esque, that my attempted criticism of the theology of the Church mostly fizzled so badly. (What, me write drafts- and spoil the surprise of how my argument turns out?)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


I think I have the courage to doubt everything; I think I have the courage to fight everything. But I do not have the courage to know anything, nor to possess, to own anything. Most people complain that the world is so prosaic, that life isn't like a romantic novel where opportunities are always so favourable. What I complain of is that life is not like a novel where there are hard-hearted fathers, and goblins and trolls to fight with, enchanted princesses to free. What are all such enemies taken together compared to the pallid, bloodless, glutinous nocturnal shapes with which I fight and to which I myself give life and being.

Kierkegaard, in Either/Or

My spiritual malaise, far from being dispelled, has only begun to seem normal and sane rather than terrible. Good friends have offered their diagnoses (and I have added a few of my own):

*a passing phase of young adulthood
*a dearth of intellectual and spiritual reading
*displacement of academic and social anxieties onto religion
*an existential crisis of being
*a distrust of (all) external authority
*a (mild but protracted) depressive episode
*the effects of a too Protestant outlook- fear of a more visceral faith
*a lack of exposure to beauty
*the growing pains of a more mature faith
*the death throes of my faith

Now, I'm sure that many people think of that last prognosis as needlessly alarmist, and it should come as no surprise that I'm the only one (Catholic or otherwise) who takes it seriously. You seem to repose a great deal of trust in my faith, dear Reader, but I can't say I share that confidence. My reason has become too critical, my willpower too weak. If you'll pardon me, I'm going to do something awfully foolish and narcissistic (for extremis malis extrema remedia): make my crisis public.

Orthonormal Basis has been dying a slow death for two years now, but a good number of very smart Catholics still seem to read it now and then. So I ask of you two things: First, pray for me. There's no way I can manage something of this nature on my own. Secondly, help me with your thoughts and comments as I work through the foundations of my faith, which time has shown to be either crumbling or vanished. I may even play devil's advocate, but think of me as if I were Glaucon or Adeimantus, desiring to be convinced but fearing that I may not be.

Strange (and trite) as it may sound, my current intellectual obstacles center around the ideas of metaphor and pattern. By metaphor (for lack of a better word) I mean the identification of two apparently different things as one, including cases where they really are the same thing under two guises (e.g. electricity and magnetism). (If I were being mathematically pretentious, I would have called this "isomorphism" instead of metaphor. But I digress.)

The stakes are raised when a metaphor is used as evidence of a concept- as when New Testament texts take Old Testament passages as referring to Christ, or when the Church finds scriptural support for the Assumption by referring to Mary as the "ark of the covenant". If the metaphor fails, so does the argument.

Similar to this is the matter of finding patterns and connections within the Faith, and from it to other ideas. For a long time, I fed myself on such "epiphanies" every few weeks, some new theological or philosophical tidbit (about angelology, love, and death , for example) that let me reinterpret some significant part of my world. It didn't matter how much I took for granted in asserting such connections; in this blog and elsewhere, I was far more interested in tracing the consequences of my act of faith than tracing its foundations. Somehow, the self-consistency and correspondence with large swaths of human experience were enough for me then.

But not all connections are true glimpses of reality; some are just like the constellations, or the visual composition of a painted landscape (the actual landscape doesn't usually 'lead the eye' like a painting does). We human beings are very good at inventing, as well as discovering, patterns and metaphors, and it becomes a very difficult task to tell the two modes apart.

For whatever reason, in recent months my mind has stopped making so many connections (or perhaps simply stopped being entranced by them), and has started to cast doubt on the connections made by others (I had to return Gregory of Nyssa's The Life of Moses because I couldn't overcome my critical reaction to his zealous use of the symbolic). I've started to look again at the connections that I see between the Faith and the world I know, and I find them fewer and weaker than I'd hoped.

So I'm going to try and reexamine them, on my own and with your assistance. This will take a while, of course. I want to touch on all of the following reasons I've cited in the past:

*philosophical arguments for God (esp. the Uncaused Cause)
*the Judeo-Christian culture and its fruits
*the inescapable belief in Meaning
*my subjective religious experiences
*the example of the Saints
*the consistency of Catholic dogma
*my abhorrence of nihilism

I honestly don't know where I will finish. But I must do this.

P.S. I know that faith is a virtue and a grace, and not the result of evidence. But an act of faith has to be based on some foundation, or else it's an absurd existentialist act.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


I'm feeling better now. Not coincidentally, I've turned in my take-home final (only a day late) and almost completed the grading ordeal (11+ hours just to score the final).

I suppose that I don't handle stress well; I'm tempted to nihilism of a sort. If life has no meaning, then my failure (or fear of failure) doesn't seem so bad, relatively speaking. Yes, I'm aware that's not a very wise coping mechanism.

There may also be a few other causes at play, but I'm not the most coherent in my thinking right now, so those hypotheses shall wait for another day.


I'd say I haven't posted because I've been busy, but that would be a lie. I have been very busy, but I would have found the time if I'd wanted.

I'm in the darkness again. Sorry.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Fas et nefas ambulant

pene passu pari;
prodigus non redimit
vitium avari;
virtus temperantia
quadam singulari
debet medium
ad utrumque vitium
caute contemplari.

I just heard the most amazing concert- the Berkeley Chamber Chorus' performance of the Carmina Burana (not the Carl Orff version; rather, an attempted recreation of the medieval neumes). This codex of miscellaneous poems and songs, written by student monks in a melange of ecclesiastical Latin and Old German, ranges over the whole sphere of the 13th-century cosmos without denying the reality of either the sacred or the profane. (There's something genuinely Catholic in that.)

I was truly impressed with how the Chamber Chorus prepared and staged it, respecting the dramatic range of the text: here a proto-Cavalier carpe diem song (sung with a wink), there the woe of Mary at the Crucifixion (a heart-stopping lament, surrounded with reverence), there a melodrama of the Fall (the text was in places as thin as the typical opera libretto, so the overwrought staging was fitting- in a particularly fine touch, God raised two fingers of his right hand in the Pantocrator pose each time He spoke).

But best of all was the music- there's something still unearthly about chant, something more immediate and more moving than all the artificial orchestration of classical music, and the Chamber Chorus was flowing and expressive with it. I confess, as always, that I don't know much about music, but I was just floored by this concert.

You, dear Reader, have one more chance to catch this performance if you live in the Bay Area. They'll sing at St. Dominic's Church in San Francisco, Sunday at 7, for free. (Also, the University Chorus will be doing the Carl Orff version for free tomorrow at 3 PM on campus, in Hertz Hall.) If you can go, I say you should.

Otherwise, as Cato said, Ambula cum bonis!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

I'm OK,

just in case you were wondering. I haven't had too much time for self-absorbed angst this week, and I won't have time for it this weekend.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Quare tristis es anima mea, et quare conturbas me?

I've hesitated to write about my struggles this Lent, partially because I haven't managed my time or sleep very well this week, and partially because I fear that I don't have anything interesting to say about them. I've found, yet again, that I don't have any knowledge of my own, that I'm only good for reacting to other people's ideas and (over)analyzing them. Sorry if you expected anything better from me.

In short, I've been battling a sort of free-floating despair on matters mathematical, personal and theological. More than once I've contemplated apostasy, the total divorce from God. I'd submit a couple of the intellectual excuses I've had for doubt, but I can't deny that this is more about hope than about reason. There are simply times when I lose hope of seeing God- and I worry that this sort of despair is not a cross I'm done carrying.

When I talked to my mother recently about my doubts and despair, she told me something amazing and beautiful. I can't do it justice here, but she said that carrying and giving birth to me was one of the most spiritual times of her life- that she would exclaim, "How could there not be a God?" when faced with the wonder of it all.

It refreshes me to know that she (and others) have these kind of connections to reality, but I've never seemed to be wired for them. I drift, unmoored by any sort of visceral knowledge, in a sea of ideas that connect only to each other. Those of you who've talked with me for any length of time on serious matters have usually heard me raise repugnant ideas with no self-consciousness whatsoever. That's because for me, there are no repugnant ideas- only ideas that offend others. (I've retreated from some conversations, not because I was offended by this or that, but because I'd have felt embarrassed to make my principled objection.)

I've gained more respect for those who, out of allegiance to what they cannot deny as true, hold to contradictions- for example, those who can neither deny that the Church is the Church, nor affirm some particular of Her doctrine. I used to feel that such people were ridiculous, but no more. I'm the weird one, the one who perceives the sinews of arguments but not the thing described.

I'm aware that this post doesn't make any sense. Do you see what I mean, that I have nothing intelligent to write about this? I can't make heads or tails of my troubles, and I can't stop thinking about them. I'll end up a saint or a lunatic, and I worry I won't be a saint.

Spera in Deo...

Monday, April 09, 2007

I've doubled my money!

Um, give me a few days to catch up on blogs and such...

P.S. Yes you are!

P.P.S. (in a more serious vein) A sweetly disheartening little story, if a bit melodramatic- a great violinist dresses as a street musician to see who will stop and listen in a train station. Via (yes, of course) DC.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Christus surrexit hodie!

Welcome back to Orthonormal Basis. It's been a long Lent, hasn't it?

I'd hoped to have some wisdom or inspiration to share with you at this point, but that hope was dashed once again by my frailty of mind and will. Later, when I have some time to myself, I might have a few stories to share of my visit to New York and Boston, or comments on books I've been reading, or an explication of my continuing interior troubles- but for now, I shall leave it be.

Monday, February 19, 2007

It's time.

In the great tradition of academia, I am taking a sabbatical from the Blog-o-Tubes. No comment on any connection this hiatus has to "Lent". I'll still be around on e-mail, but that's it.

It's too bad that I won't have time for a post that was on my mind- the relation of virtue and willpower. After watching Letters from Iwo Jima, I had some issues with its de-mythologizing of the World War II drama (in much the way that Unforgiven de-mythologized the Western). In great measure, Iwo Jima undermined the Japanese sense of honor and heroism in favor of delusion and hypocrisy; the only two Japanese characters portrayed as admirable are the Americanized ones, while the 'true believers' in Japanese honor are shown to be frauds, maniacs and fools.

What this movie offers in place of the old heroism is willpower- fighting on when it does no more good. But persevering in utter futility is mere stubbornness (a la Camus' Myth of Sisyphus), not courage. The courageous man will not throw his life away for nothing, but will give his life for something worthy of it. (Yeah, I'm still reading Aquinas and Pieper on fortitude. THEY ARE ROCK STARS.) In particular, courage implies hope, not always in temporal victory, but always the hope that one's act is meaningful.

But that's all I'll try and write about it now- I don't want to spend any more of my weekend than I've already wasted. I wanted to use this as a starting point to talk about my deepening understanding of the virtues, and why Aristotle did not count a tremendous interior struggle as a sign of virtue. But I'm still as disorganized a thinker as I was when I began this blog- if I'm a little more aware of it now, thank God for that at least. It beats going crazy.

Have a splendid feast on the morrow, and may the Lord grant us His peace throughout this Lent!

P.S. I couldn't think of a decent self-description for this blog, so I'm holding a contest on that theme- see the upper right-hand corner! Er, I'm lazy. You might want to include that in your submission.

P.P.S. I don't normally bring partisan politics into ONB, but feel free to actually make these bumper stickers I came up with:

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

I accidentally touched my head,

and noticed that I had been bleeding,
for how long I didn't know.

No, really. There was an unexplained scar on my head this morning. One of my students noticed the bandage; after I explained that I had no idea how I'd cut myself, another student suggested that I must have been drunk last night. I replied that I always got drunk on Tuesdays, to help me write the quizzes.

But in reality, there was no reaction.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Quotidian Post!

This is one of THREE posts this evening (and probably the weakest of the three)! I just felt a tad inspired, that's all.

Life has been all right. I have this semester to either become an actual mathematician or die trying; I'm planning to take my qualifying exam (contents: me, 4 professors, a chalkboard, and three hours) in late May. After that, it will be time to start making math of my own and working towards a thesis. If I don't screw up too badly, I might have a PhD by 2010.

I've finally gone and started learning how to swing dance, and the first class was excellent; I can't recall the last time I've had so much fun for 90 minutes. At the very beginning, I must confess to a minor bout of totally irrational chorophobia (or perhaps venustraphobia), but the joy of dancing soon overcame that.

Last night was the "Evening with G.K. Chesterton", which lived up to its billing: though I have no way of knowing how thorough was Dr. Chalberg's imitation of Chesterton's manner, it was impressive to hear such a deft synthesis of his famous works- every word was Gilbert's. The food was excellent; Erik prepared an amazing haggis risotto (much better than I'm sure it sounds), a juicy pot roast and more. (Incidentally, you ought to stop by and wish Mr. Keilholtz a happy 'Ducebruary' if you haven't already.)

The company was excellent, too; St. Margaret Mary's has truly become a home for me, and I'm rapidly finding how interconnected is the local community of Catholics wacky enough to consider that the Church might be exactly what She's always claimed to be. Arturo, a.k.a. the Sarabite, is even more erudite and interesting in person than on his blog (which I highly recommend).

From the past to the future- this spring break, I'll be heading out for the East Coast (Lord knows I've paid some dues, getting through...) to see sister Katie in New York and a couple of friends in Boston (i.e. University of Chicago, East Campus). A duel awaits me on the banks of the Charles, and my foe shall be humbled! Oh, and if you'll be in NYC or Boston for the last week of March, dear Reader, don't hesitate to let me know; perhaps there may be a lunch in it for you...

Well, that about sums it up for the time being. Seek the good!

P.S. I finally got a new cell phone, since the old one lost the ability to receive calls. Now people can call me anytime!

Just to Scare Off the Non-Mathematicians

It's been a while since I posted anything about mathematics that wasn't a protracted whimper on my part. In the spirit of improvement, here are two interesting problems I've solved for HW this semester. (Incidentally, I'm not asking you to try these at home; the solutions turn out to be applications of some relatively hefty theorems, not methods you'd arrive at starting from scratch. I just thought it was interesting to show some concrete examples of what I've been up to.)

1. Given any string of digits (say, 1-2-3), there exists a power of 2 which begins with those digits (in this case, 2^90 ≈ 1.23794 x 10^27, 2^379 is approximately 1.23131 x 10^114, etc). (Actually, the exercise proves that there are infinitely many such powers of 2.)

2. If a knight starts on a corner of an ordinary chessboard and moves randomly thereafter (choosing with equal probability from each of its legal moves), how long on average will it take for the knight to return to its original space? (More precisely, if I were to pay you $1 for every move it took before returning to that corner, what sum would you have to pay me in advance to make it a fair gamble?)

oh man, you missed out
For those interested, the first problem can be put into a better context by taking the base 10 log of powers of 2 and always dropping the part before the decimal point (because that doesn't affect the digits, only the power of 10); then it's a question of whether these points are dense in [0,1), and an 'ergodic' theorem (proved with a little Fourier analysis) proves that they are.

And the second problem is from my Probability Theory class, which is now covering Markov chains (situations in which the future doesn't depend on the past, only the current situation). There's a neat theorem that shows that the expected time of return can be derived from a stationary probability measure on the space (in this case, we put positive weights on each square that correspond to the number of ways to arrive at that square).

Looking back, I didn't really do much of a job removing/explaining jargon, but I can't think of a better way at the moment. Anyhow, I think this stuff is pretty excellent, and I do it so you don't have to!

St. Thomas, you win again.

Even pusillanimity may in some way be the result of pride: when, to wit, a man clings too much to his own opinion, whereby he thinks himself incompetent for those things for which he is competent. Hence it is written (Proverbs 26:16): "The sluggard is wiser in his own conceit than seven men that speak sentences." For nothing hinders him from depreciating himself in some things, and having a high opinion of himself in others. Wherefore Gregory says (Pastoral. i) of Moses that "perchance he would have been proud, had he undertaken the leadership of a numerous people without misgiving: and again he would have been proud, had he refused to obey the command of his Creator."

Summa II-II 133, 1 ad 3.
I've been pondering the virtues of late, particularly fortitude, and especially in the context of the Catholic faith and its critics. At Chicago, I was an awful beast of conceit, convinced of my own arguments (more so than convinced of the thing itself) and certain that I could convince the Other after a few more rounds. But at Berkeley, I've transformed into something quite different; I've begun to instinctively retreat from any controversy involving the hard sayings of the Church. (Worse, I've become embarrassed by those who do publicly defend the Church, because I fear being lumped together with them. For that there's simply no excuse.)

As you might have witnessed, the objective content of this blog has declined accordingly. I've ceased to make the naive pronouncements and quasi-aphoristic claims that were my Intertubes raison d'etre; instead, this has become excusively a domain of personal worries, webcomic links and threatened arson (OK, I don't regret that post).

For a while, I've wanted to go back and recapture that feeling of glory and confidence in debate. But that's not what's asked of me, any more than is my retreat into silence and triviality. What's asked of me, insofar as I have anything at all to say, is to look to the truth and leave behind both these extremes of pride: the pride of presumption and the pride of despair.

Of course, dear Reader, you know well just how diligent I've been in keeping prior resolutions of life and mind- particularly the qualitative ones.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Dammit, Feynman!

I've just realized that in my style of lecturing, I'm turning into my high school chemistry/physics teacher, Mr. Koz. This is actually pretty awesome.

I hope that everybody's had at least one clever and enthusiastic science teacher. I hope that a few of you have had the added bonus of a teacher with awful puns ("What's nu?" "C over lambda!") and self-deprecating humor about his personal life1. And trebuchet-building contests.

What really occasioned this wasn't my spate of awful jokes and cheesy references (though I have realized that the best mental image for teaching determinants involves the game Super Bomberman), but the experience of dealing with students who start to remind me of myself in high school. You know, the student who already knows a lot and is blithely unaware of social norms, so he asks a bunch of questions which either aim to impress the teacher, or draw the class off on a tangent that doesn't help the other 29 students.

It's my responses to these students that start to remind me of Mr. Koz, all those times of "We don't have time to go into this, Patrick!" and "Anybody but Patrick have a question?". Now the shoe's on the other foot. I've evaded, I've swept under the rug, I've answered a "Does this have anything to do with the Gram-Schmidt process?" with a brusque "No!"

It's not that these students make me angry, but it's just going to be tough to teach to the greater number and leave Those Kids' enthusiasm intact at the same time. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.

Perhaps these students fall into everybody's class. Perhaps it's just sweet justice for my own tormenting ways. Either way, I'm going to be very careful that I don't pick up other Koz tics and start ranting hilariously about Valentine's Day (Mr. Koz's advice was, "Only get girlfriends after Valentine's Day, and break up with them before Christmas and New Years- you'll save yourselves a world of trouble") or cubic zirconium ("a guy's best friend").

1. Great Googly Moogly, how did I not realize this at the time? I have heard two different and uproarious tales of romance ruined by rampaging raccoons, and there's no way that either was the source for the other. Maybe they really do know too much...

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A short but important note.

5 AM is not the time for me to get up, walk next door, bang on the window and ask you politely to stop your all-night music party that woke me up again and again. 5 AM is the time for ARSON.

Friday, January 26, 2007

They can't grab me if I'm on fire.

Faulkner, dead shoes, cowardice, debt from society, Octo, overactive imagination, the Who, the rejection of philosophy in public reason, failure, webcomic situations, horrific allegations, wacky subcultures, Oasis, conversion of St. Paul. There. Blogging Tourette's.

P.S. Whoever's been calling me from the University of Chicago, could you please leave me a message, or pick up when I call you back, or how about sending me an e-mail? This is the third time at least.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Once I was worried that I'd get bad grades.

Then I logged in to find I had no grades at all.

I've run afoul of the Berkeley administration over a $4.00 University Health charge and a spiraling sequence of late fees (which shouldn't have been applied at all to this situation), of which I remained blissfully unaware until after break- when I found that I couldn't register for classes this semester.

And now I've just found that they revoked my credits for last semester, which means that I am in serious trouble, department-wise. I'm sure that I can clear this up (OK, I hope that I can clear this up), but still, ARGH. FOUR FRIGGIN' DOLLARS.

In other news, apparently my silent and awkward visage didn't get broadcast on basic cable yesterday after all. EWTN interviewed Berkeley Students for Life at the Walk for Life, and I was trapped in a no-man's-land spot between subject and reporter. But it looks like they didn't use our footage after all.

Aforementioned walk was a success, again.

LATER YESTERDAY: Dierdre and I were mobbed by large puppets on a BART train. The mosquito heckled me for flubbing my taxonomy (in my defense, he had no wings and a plaid suit), and then some guy got on with a guitar, and they all sang a song about the subway (holding up "SUB-WHAT?" signs for the chorus). I realize that this sounds as if I'd consumed the "special" spices at Brandy Ho's Hunan, but I assure you that this actually happened. Does anybody else know who that group might be?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Thank God.

It is finished. The paper should never have come to this, but I am finally done with it; and I'm ready to take a long break before I have to think about math again.

Oh, drat.

I am exhausted. Tomorrow, classes begin.

The wedding of John and Wavelet was as incredible as anticipated. The wedding Mass was simple and beautiful, everything quite proper- kneeling before the altar, Gregorian chant, Fr. Zak scolding them in his Polish accent for not having eaten before the wedding, Tobit and Ephesians and the Wedding at Cana, anxious faces before and relief afterwards. Everything that ought to be solemn was solemn.

And with the reception, they showed that everything that didn't have to be solemn was fair game. Mexican wrestling masks (i.e. Strong Bad's head) as wedding favors? Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots as a dance song, with bride and groom doing the Robot? YES.

There's something about dozens of young children out on a dance floor that screams "Catholic Wedding". Also, the family held an after-after-party the next day to finish off all the fantastic food put together by Erik. Also, I'm not yet sure whether "Deirdre" (sist-or of the bride) is recovered yet from her 36-hour partying spree. Also, hello to the brothers and sisters of the groom who asked about my blog- I greatly admired the cut of your collective jib! Finally, 'twas excellent meeting Dan of Bloody Papist, even if our dispute (whether reincarnation would be incoherent or simply unfitting for humans- of course we agreed that it doesn't happen) was not totally resolved by appeal to Tommy A.

Alright. Now, sleep. SLEEEEEEEEEEEP.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

But I shot a man in Reno,

then calculated pi.

As noted (obscurely) below, I got a short extension on that math paper that should have been done in December. I'm mostly finished with it.

But I didn't have the guts to tell Dr. Christ that I'd been planning to go on a ski trip this week. Ah well, it was very much worth it. I went with the grad student gang, drove out to Reno and stayed at the Atlantis casino (the rooms were cheap but great; they expected us to gamble away much more money than we did), then up to Mt. Rose on Wednesday. I got the hang of snowboarding this time! (Almost.)