Monday, October 6, 2014

"As we forgive those who trespass against us."
Part II: The Moral Responsibility of Evil-Doers

British woman who joined ISIS calls for beheading of Christians

New York man charged with hate crimes for seven 'knockout' assaults

Homegrown jihadist shoots N.J. teen
8 times, calling it a ‘just kill’: report                Headline, Washington Times, September 18th, 2014 

Scandal of the 1,400 lost girls in Rotherham      

Headline, Times of London, August 27th 2014

Fort Hood shooter sentenced to death for 2009 killings

"God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can't. If a thing is free to be good it's also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. "             C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity 
Those are disturbing headlines (and meant to be)!   Why does God allow such evil?    The answer is given by C.S. Lewis above, and with his quote I might end this post.    But there are those who object "there is no such thing as free will" and consequently,  moral responsibility for one's deeds is a non-issue.   So we should answer their attempt to reject God's troublesome gift, freedom of choice.


I'll repeat what I said in the first post: "If the universe is deterministic, plays out according to set physical laws, there can be only one future and there can be no free choices.   If, as special relativity suggests, there is a particular past, present and future for each  particular reference frame, so that all is encompassed in a block universe, then everything is laid out before us, independent of our actions."

Or, as the philosopher Michael Lockwood would have it:
"To take the space-time view seriously is indeed to regard everything that ever exists, or ever happens, at any time or place, as being just as real as the contents of the here and now. And this rules out any conception of free will that pictures human agents, through their choices, as selectively conferring actuality on what are initially only potentialities." Michael Lockwood, The Labyrinth of Time
The scientific arguments against Lockwood's claim will be given at greater length in another post, but there is one common-sense refutation--if I were to believe it, why should I write this post?    To put it another way
"People may sincerely think they believe in determinism, but they act otherwise, and must act otherwise, every time they deliberate.  The great American philosopher Charles Pierce argued that a belief that cannot be consistently acted on cannot be true. If he’s right about this – and I believe he is – then determinism must be false." Greg Boyd, Three Arguments against Determinism. 


If then universe is determined, as in objection 1, it would follow that whatever we did and thought was purely a function of our brain states, and since these brain states are physically set, there is no way to make free moral choices, no such thing as an immaterial soul to oversee our actions.   On the other hand, even in a indeterministic universe the claim of most cognitive scientists would be that the assembly of neurons, the concatenation of biochemical and electrical events in the brain, determined our acts.   Neuroscientists cite much research, ranging from the 19th century case of Phineas Gage, whose character changed radically after a railroad spike was driven through his frontal lobe, to that of the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, who argues that split brain phenomena show free will does not exist.  

Neuro-materialistic arguments against free will can be summarized thus:
  • Material damage to the brain causes change in behavior and moral attitudes.
  • Psychoactive drugs change behavior and moral attitudes.
  • Therefore behavior is determined only by the physical nature of the brain and the biochemical/electrical events occurring therein, and there is no such thing as free will.
In his book, My Brain Made Me Do It, Eliezer Sternberg has argued by analogy against this neuro-materialistic proposition.   Consider a jet fighter;  it can crash because of damage to the wings, the jet engines, faulty fuel, etc.   But even when it is fully functional, it needs a pilot to fly it.    Similarly the brain can crash due to damage or harm to its parts or to bad biochemistry, but there is still something else--which I choose to call a soul--a pilot, needed to make it function.

There is another, stronger argument against neuro-materialism. Consider identical twins (same DNA). If moral behavior is determined only by the physical and chemical natures of the brain, one would expect these genetically identical twins to behave alike--if one is a criminal, so would the other be, with 100% concordance. However, a Danish study has shown only a 52% rate for concordance between identical twins (compared to 22% for fraternal twins). Moreover, this study has been criticized as neglecting linked environmental behavioral factors by Carey: "The results suggest that the genetic influence on registered criminality may be more modest than previously thought."

Nevertheless, neuroscientists conclude that free will is an illusion, on the basis of experiments involving simple, inconsequential choices.   The most cited of these is the Libet experiment, which shows a brain potential exists before a subject is consciously aware of making a choice.  On the other hand  Timothy Bayne and Eliezer Sternberg say that the Libet experiments do not justify free will skepticism.   The most significant  objection, which Sternberg supports by several detailed examples of moral/ethical decision problems, is that the Libet experiment (and others) involve inconsequential choices, choices which do not require reflection, consideration of an unlimited set of moral and situational factors.   Sternberg classifies these kinds of decisions as "boundless", that is to say decisions that cannot be determined algorithmically, as might be done in a computer, unlike those processes that proceed almost without conscious deliberation (like riding a bicycle).   Since ethical decision making is "boundless", it cannot proceed solely from algorithmic brain processes, but requires another agency.  

I am not foolish enough to argue that ethical behavior does not involve physical and chemical characteristics of the brain, or that heredity might not have some influence on the capacity for making good moral choices.   I suggest that the brain is, like the jet fighter in Sternberg's analogy, a necessary vehicle for something else--the soul, the will, conscience--that which is endowed in each person by the Holy Spirit at conception.    How this matures as the human matures, how it acts for each of us is still and may remain a mystery.


The best (and most entertaining) case for nurture as the prime element determining moral behavior is the "Gee Officer Krupke" routine in West Side story.   It encompasses all the factors--parental neglect, economic deprivation, bad moral influences--that sociologists claim as causal for criminality.  

However, there are two objections to nurture as the sole determinant.    First, there are many examples of people who have escaped poor economic circumstances, racial prejudice, bad parenting to become models of moral behavior.    Second, there are many examples of people in good economic circumstances, with good parents who do evil deeds.     Thus economic circumstances and parental care are neither neccessary nor sufficient conditions for evil behavior.    If we look at the headlines above, many of those involved--the rap singer who converted to Islam, the Fort Hood shooter, the 9/11 terrorists--were comfortably situated economically or even well-to-do.    For every "knock-out" criminal who comes from a single-parent environment, there is another that gets to be a judge or politician.

Again, the influence of a poor environment--economic or parental--can not be overlooked.   But it is not the only or the sole factor in moral behavior.    There is that small, still voice within us that tells us what is right or wrong, implanted at birth, the " ius naturale est quo natura omnia animalia docuit", the natural law which underlies the behavior of a rational being.

NOTE (added later):   a recent study at St. Mary's College, University of London has shown that terrorists are more likely to be well-off and educated.


In his arguments against the Pelagian Heresy, On Grace and Free Will, St. Augustine said
"There are some persons who suppose that the freedom of the will is denied whenever God's grace is maintained, and who on their side defend their liberty of will so peremptorily as to deny the grace of God. This grace, as they assert, is bestowed according to our own merits. It is in consequence of their opinions that I wrote the book entitled On Grace and Free Will." 
Whether God's arbitrary (?) bestowal of Grace negates Free Will will be dealt with at length in the next post on this topic, as will how we should deal with forgiveness, given that free will and moral responsibility exists.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"...As we forgive those who trespass against us."
Part I. The Problem of Free Will and God's Providence.

 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?  Matthew 18:21 (KJV)
"I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live." Deuteronomy, 30:
To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”  C.S. Lewis.
"Of course I believe in free will. I have no choice."  Isaac Balshevis Singer, The Salon Interview 1987.


In the past decades we have seen outrage after outrage committed by religious terrorists, gangs, members of drug cartels--the murder of Christian, Jewish and Arab children, the rape of Christian nuns, the trafficking of women and girls, "knockout" beatings of whites, the teaching of hate.   In this post I'll not discuss how these villains attempt to justify their acts on the basis of religion or deprived socio-economic status.   Rather, I want to address the following questions.
  • Do the terrorists commit these deeds freely, as we understand Free Will?
  • If they do act freely, how is it possible, for us as Christians, to forgive them?
  • Whether or not their actions be free, is there a way to see this evil  as compatible with or proceeding from God's Foreknowledge?
There will be three posts which attempt to study these acts as a case study in terms of the general subject of Free Will and God's Providence.    The first (this one) will attempt to define the problem.   The second will rebut  physicalist assertions that there is no such thing as free will and will therefore support the contention that we are morally responsible for our actions.     The third  will discuss how free will is compatible with God's Foreknowledge and Divine Will,  in a context provided by the Middle Knowledge of Luis de Molina (Molinism) and how this might enable us to "forgive" those who commit evil.


" 'Free Will' is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives." Timothy O'Connor, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Timothy O'Connor's definition above of Free Will sets the stage for stating the problem, although one important adverb has been omitted from his definition: rather than "agents to choose" I would write "agents to choose freely".    One might also add "after due deliberation and reflection".  

What are the objections to Free Will as thus defined?  

  • First, if the universe is deterministic, plays out according to set physical laws, there can be only one future and there can be no free choices.   If, as special relativity suggests, that there is a particular past, present and future for each  particular reference frame, so that all is encompassed in a block universe  and everything is laid out before us, independent of our actions.
  • Second, if our genes determine our personality, character and intelligence, how can there be different ways for us to choose, and thus to be free?
  • Third, if, on the other hand, we are formed by economic and social circumstances that mold our morals and attitudes, what ethical options are then open?

Or, if as some would have it, the randomness of quantum mechanics governs our decisions, how can this randomness be reconciled with conscious deliberation and free choice?
Where is the entity within us, the soul, that can act freely?


"By His providence God protects and governs all things which he has made... even those things which are yet to come into existence through the free action of creatures"  First Vatican Council, Dei Filius
As a Catholic, I believe in a transcendent, omnipotent and omniscient God.   "Omnipotent" means God can do what He wills, all that does not contradict the laws of logic or of necessary truths--God  can't and wouldn't make 2+2=5 or a four-sided triangle.    "Omniscient" means God knows what has happened, is happening, and will happen.    God is eternal, so that past, present and future (in any frame of reference) are in His ken.  (Not all theologists agree with this last dictum.)    Such is Divine Providence, God's omnipotence and His omniscience, including His Foreknowledge, the knowledge of the future.

Thus God knows whether I will do my daily prayer, sleep late and miss Mass tomorrow, get angry at the slow driver in front of me next week,...But if God does know all my actions, past and future, where is my freedom to do differently?   Supposedly God has given me free will to choose, but if he knows what I will choose, am I truly free, even if I think I am?  That is the problem of reconciling Free Will and God's Foreknowledge.


If we do not have free will can we be held to be morally responsible for evil acts?  Insanity--lack of knowledge of the moral implication of our acts--is a defense against murder and claims of "irresistible impulse" have been used to deny guilt.
The Catholic Catechism gives
"Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."1857
The phrase "deliberate consent" implies a free will consent, so we might ask whether  addiction, genetic predisposition, socio/psychological factors  could be considered mitigating factors.   The theologians are not in total agreement, but some do propose that addiction and other conditions negating free will mitigate the gravity of sin.    Or, as the Jets proclaim to Officer Krupke in West Side story, "It's just our upbringing that gets us out of hand".


So, what we have to examine in the next posts are
  •  Do those committing these acts have free will, i.e. do they commit them with "full knowledge and deliberate consent"?
  • Does God know beforehand that these acts of terror will be committed?   And, if so what does this say about God permitting evil and allowing free choice?
  • And, given the answers to those two questions, what does "forgiveness" mean, and how do we effect it?


(I've been on a steep learning curve in this set of posts--there's a vast literature  both on the web and in texts, and I'm only going to cite a very few of these that I've found particularly useful.)
Robert Kane, Reflections on Free Will and Determinism
John Martin Fischer, Robert Kane, Derk Pereboom, Manuel Vargas, Four Views on Free Will.
Timothy O'Connor, Free Will (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Eliezer J. Sternberg, My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility
Alfred Freddoso, Molinism
St. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will
The Block Universe of Special Relativity
Other references will be added in subsequent posts.

Monday, August 4, 2014

God's Gift to Man--the Transforming Power of Music.

"Music has power to soothe the savage breast." William Congreve, The Mourning Bride
 "This so-called ‘music,’ they would have to concede, is in some way efficacious to humans. Yet it has no concepts, and makes no propositions; it lacks images, symbols, the stuff of language. It has no power of representation. It has no relation to the world."  Oliver Sacks, The Power of Music *
"Sing unto the LORD with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.  With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the LORD, the King." Psalm 98:5,6 (KJV)
"Did you write the book of love,And do you have faith in God above,If the Bible tells you so?Do you believe in rock n'roll,Can music save your mortal soul?Don McLean, American Pie 
This post is a reflection on how music has shaped my devotion to the Church.     There will be links to my favorite music:  liturgical, hymns and other.   I'd be grateful if readers would note in comments their favorite music.   I won't say much about the psychology of music or how music affects the brain.   A lot of work has been done in functional imaging, but I'm not sure we know much more now than when Pythagoras noted the beautiful mathematical relations between harmonious intervals.    However, for those interested in pursuing the subject, I will give references**.

My first encounter with the power of music in liturgy came at a 40 Hours devotional service. (See Top Down to Jesus) .     I had been preparing for entry into the Church and although on rational grounds I had come to believe in the Resurrection and its implications, there were matters of dogma I found  difficult to understand, particularly that important one, transubstantiation, the change of the substance of the host into the body of Christ.   As the monstrance was carried in during the procession of the 40 Hours service,  Tantum Ergo was played, and I read in the missal
"Præstet fides supplementum, Sensuum defectui."
enough of my high school Latin came back, "faith will supplement the deficiency of the senses", and I realized in my heart, that the wafer, the host, was the body of Christ, that it was mystery beyond science and philosophy, and my eyes filled with tears.

Other liturgical music has struck to my heart in ways no homily or theological text seems to do.    During my first Easter Vigil Mass  The Litany of the Saints was played, and an overwhelming  vision of the history of the Church and all its holy people came to me.    During  Vespers at St. Vincent Archabbey (attended during retreat as Benedictine Oblate) or Evensong services at  the St. Thomas More Anglican Usage Parish,  a great peace and understanding  comes over me as I listen to the strong voices chanting the psalms. 

Other music, not  liturgical--Bach (the B minor Mass,  Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring), Mozart's Requiem, Ralph Vaughan William's Dona Nobis Pacem,  will bring me to thoughts of God.  Hymns  that I want to be played at my funeral have made their mark:  Amazing Grace, Shall We Gather by the River,  Jerusalem my Happy Home, The Lord of the Dance (old and corny pieces from evangelical churches, for the most part).   And there are those I play with the instrumental group at Church, It is Well with my Soul, Panis Angelicus, Mozart's Ave VerumThe King of Love My Shepherd Is. Old 100th and so many others.  (I play the alto clarinet, not well, but enough to provide harmony--a bass voice, since I can't sing on key.***)

One thing should be clear: it isn't the music by itself that is moving, but the total situation:  liturgy, congregation, and the words.   I could read
"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,That saved a wretch like me.I once was lost but now am found,Was blind, but now I see.T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.And Grace, my fears relieved.How precious did that Grace appearThe hour I first believed." Liberty Lyrics John Newton 
It would be moving, but it is the combination of the words that reflect my own experience AND the music that brings me to tears of joy.  I could read the verses of Tantum Ergo and Pange Lingua, but it would not be meaningful without the presence of Christ's body, the procession, the Benediction,  and the congregation sharing this experience.

Am I only being sentimental and not truly devoted to the austere beauty of liturgy in my reaction to this music--too catholic (with a lower-case c)?   Some Church liturgists might think so.
"It is not surprising that Church leaders have doubted whether the feelings which music arouses are truly religious.  Music's power to fan the flames of piety may be more apparent than real..."Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind     
The Hebrews did not worry about music being a distraction from devotion to the Lord.    David danced in the procession to the altar and the psalms say "Sing to the Lord a new song,  play the lute, the lyre and the harp, sound the trumpets".    St. Augustine, entranced by music, was concerned that this power might enable the senses to overcome the intellect in worship:
"So I waver between the danger that lies in gratifying the senses and the benefits which, as I know, can accrue from singing....I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired  with feelings of devotion.  Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth  which it conveys, I confess it is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer. (emphasis added)" St. Augustine, Confessions
The last sentence in the quote is the foundation for the expulsion of music from the Church in Calvinist sects (read "The Warden" by Anthony Trollope).   I cannot subscribe to that view.  I am one of St. Augustine's weaker spirits.   I believe God gave many many gifts to man in giving him intelligence:  language, mathematics, music, art.   Music has the power to heal the soul (as Oliver Sacks shows in Musicophilia) and to bring one closer to God.   We give joy to God  when we rejoice in music, not only to praise Him, but to rejoice in life (l'Chaim)

*This quote, to show what a strange gift  music is, comes from Arthur C. Clarke's classic "Childhood's End", in which an alien species comes to guide mankind from childhood to maturity.   The very intelligent aliens do not understand the power of music.    They go to a concert,  listen politely and come away wondering.


Robert Jourdain, Music, the Brain and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination. 
Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain
Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind


I am musical but untalented (unlike my younger and older brothers).   At the age of 8, I didn't pass an audition at our Temple Youth Choir because I couldn't carry a tune.  So, I took up the clarinet as a biddable instrument-- if you put your fingers on the right keys, the right note comes out (given a certain amount of play in lipping the reed).     However, the biddability of the clarinet and my own talent weren't sufficient to let me do well in junior high school band, so that clarinet was put away until after my retirement, when I took up playing again: bass clarinet, then alto clarinet and the bowed psaltery.  Throughout my life from a teenager on, I have enjoyed classical music, folk music and some of the Golden Oldies--no rap, no hard rock, none of the stuff that's played on most radio stations.

My musical tastes are catholic (lower-case c).   On my Pandora web site are listed stations including Callas, Pavarotti, Fleming,  St. Martin's in the Fields, Gilbert & Sullivan, Bach, Mozart, klezmer, Sephardic, Ashokan Farewell, bluegrass.   Such music is moving in different ways--Ravel's  Bolero, the Wedding Scene from Fiddler on the Roof, The Beatles' "Let it Be", the final scene from Der Rosenkavalier, American Pie...(added later) Ode to Joy (Beethoven's 9th), (added later) The Days of Elijah (The Day of Jubilee)

About Me

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Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.