Thursday, January 5, 2017

Proof of the Human Soul?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the human soul is the innermost aspect of man and the spiritual principle that separates from the body after death. The body then decays and the soul goes to meet God (CCC #363, #997). But is it possible to prove that the human soul exists?


Whenever someone asks for proof of something, especially something immaterial, I sometimes ask if it is possible to prove anything at all. This is not to be flippant; it’s a serious question.

Suppose you were told that last night while you slept your brain was taken by aliens and installed into an alien supercomputer. This supercomputer is now inputting all the correct electrochemical impulses into your brain to precisely simulate the world you are familiar with. You think you are reading a blog post right now, but it is actually the alien computer inputting the data directly into your brain—similar to the concept in the 1999 movie “The Matrix”. This might sound absurd, but you would simply have no way of proving that this artificial reality is false. If all the data you have is only virtual data being continuously streamed into your brain, you would have no outside system to use as a relevant basis of comparison.

For a less fantastic example involving “proof”, consider our criminal justice system. Have you ever been a juror in a criminal trial? I have; it was quite a rigorous exercise in reason with a bunch of perfect strangers—and it went on for two days. Proving someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt gets rather contentious when all twelve jurors cannot agree on when the threshold for a “reasonable doubt” has been achieved. It seems to me that when people try hard enough, they can always find a doubt that is reasonable…at least to them.

Here’s another case in point; suppose you and I see a cat running across the street. We agree that it was indeed a cat and we go forward with that premise. There is no doubt that we saw a cat; it is an unquestioned fact. We later receive more data that informs us that it was actually a funny looking raccoon. This is not so different from observations used in science. Once something is “proven” is the science settled forever? No; not if more data is found to question the previous thinking. Consider that Isaac Newton and centuries of Aristotelian logic held to the assertion that our universe and past time were infinite. Today many accept the premise that time/space had a starting point or Big Bang.1

There are many such examples about “proof” and I was reminded of these when discussing near-death experiences (NDEs) with someone as evidence for the human soul. Of all the unanswered questions in science, one of the biggest is “What is the biological basis of consciousness?” The hidden assumption in the question is (of course) that there must be a biological basis.

Consciousness can only be a product of a working brain; which is essentially a “meat computer” ultimately controlled by the universal and unchangeable laws of physics and chemistry. Therefore, NDEs must be manufactured in the brain. They are delusions produced by the brain under extreme duress, such as a lack of oxygen or being under the influence of powerful drugs administered during a medical emergency. Agreed?


For the strict materialist the paragraph above might be a satisfying answer, but like the example of the cat vs. raccoon, could there be more data to question the thinking behind NDEs and human consciousness? I believe I found such data in an article written by Fr. Robert Spitzer when I searched the Magis Center for Faith & Reason for NDEs.

Now, it is understandable to think that a priest writing something about NDEs could have a non-scientific and manipulative agenda about the afterlife, but the very opening paragraph shows the concern for scientific objectivity, “I cite the evidence of near-death experiences with some trepidation, because there are many books written on this subject which are not scientific…these nonscientific books have rather manipulative agendas, and some are quite cultic in character.”

The article goes on to summarizes three separate scientific studies on NDEs: The van Lommel et al Study, The Melvin Morse Study of Near-Death Experiences of Children and The Kenneth Ring, et al Study of Near-Death Experiences of the Blind. For me, the most interesting data that challenge the premise about consciousness being only a product of the brain are as follows:

Flat EEGs: People reported clear and lucid consciousness during the time in which there was no electrical activity in the brain cortex and no brain stem function either, evidenced by fixed dilated pupils and absence of the gag reflex. How can lucid conciseness continue when the brain is clinically dead?

Out of Body: People experienced an out-of-body state with sensorial capabilities. Out of body could even mean out of the room where they laid unconscious, going through walls, seeing things and hearing conversations which were later verified to be accurate. How does one experience this without a body, unless their consciousness is somehow “non-physical”?

Blind from Birth: Those blind from birth reported that they could see. If all our memories and knowledge are stored in our brain and our brain never received any visual inputs from our eyes, how does a blind person see during an NDE?

NDEs and Children: Wouldn’t it be foolish to believe a child? Maybe sometimes, but if you’ve spent time with children you know they can be very unbiased and matter-of-fact. Small children do not know what an NDE is and are not motivated by cultural or religious agendas, so how likely are they to purposely report data to help these agendas?

Low Percentage: Not everyone reports an NDE. In the van Lommel study only 18% reported an NDE, but 100% of them suffered a shortage of oxygen, were given morphine-like medications and were victims of severe stress. If an NDE is just a biological reflex of a dying brain, shouldn’t it be closer to 100%? If endorphins were suddenly and unexpectedly released into the brains of 100 people, wouldn’t about 100 of them report “good feelings”?



Do these objective aspects of subjective near-death experiences prove the existence of the human soul and the afterlife? Perhaps not, but beware of willful ignorance and having qualms with an agenda. As in the criminal trail example above, people are good at raising “reasonable doubts” for just about anything. Should consciousness without a physical brain be considered a real possibility? As with the most basic principles of reason, when many clues point in a certain direction, we do well to explore that direction seriously. In the grand scheme of reality these studies are additional data points (and there are many) that concur with the Catholic worldview.


1. Thomas E. Woods, How Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Washington D.C: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2005), p. 91

Monday, December 19, 2016

Curious & Uplifiting

Perhaps many of us are pleased to hear religious Christmas music in all kinds of public areas and venues this time of year. Many are praising the Lord publicly, but perhaps we see it as a kind of empty praise with multitudes of earthly sinners crying out “Lord, Lord”, so to speak, deserving the response “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but not do what I command?” (Luke 6:46)



Hypocrisy notwithstanding, prayerful music accepted in public areas gives me hope for a future Christendom. My oldest son is now a freshman at a rather large public high school where he joined the choir; they had a concert a few months ago and the grand finally was the song "Praise His Holy Name". You should see the lyrics. Here is a sample...

“holy Jesus praise his name
oh hallejuah praise his holy name” (x4)
Read more:  Whispers - Praise His Holy Name Lyrics | MetroLyrics 

No one seemed offended and there was thunderous applause at the end. Remember this is a public school (nowhere near the Bible Belt)! I found it both curious and uplifting to see a secular musical ensemble shamelessly and loudly singing praises to Jesus, and all of it happening in a secular environment. To my knowledge, no one called the ACLU in protest.

Along the same vein, a few years ago that same son of mine was fortunate enough to have participated in the children’s choir for a presentation of the St. Nicholas Cantata written by Benjamin Britten (text by Eric Crozier).

Cantata means "sung" and is derived from the Italian word "cantare”; it’s a vocal composition with an instrumental accompaniment, typically in several movements, often involving a choir. This particular performance involved a full orchestra, adult choir, children’s choir and a tenor. This was not billed as a Christmas or Holiday concert and it was not sponsored by any church or other religious organization. It came from a state college/community music organization preforming in the theater of a private secular liberal arts college.

Here are some of the insightful music lyrics from the part of St. Nicholas; they read like biblical psalms. I don’t know if these are actual quotes from the saint, but I thought I’d share them nonetheless, since they seem as true today as they must have been in his time.

“Poor man! I found him solitary, racked
By doubt: born, bred, doomed to die
In everlasting fear of everlasting death:
The foolish toy of time, the darling of decay—
Hopeless, faithless, defying God.”

“O God! We are all weak sinful, foolish men.
We pray from fear and from necessity at death, in sickness or
private loss. Without the prick of fear our conscience sleeps,
forgetful of Thy Grace.
Help us, O God! to see more clearly.
Tame our stubborn hearts.
Teach us to ask for less and offer more in gratitude to Thee.
Pity our simplicity, for we are truly pitiable in Thy sight.”

If all this wasn’t remarkable enough for a secular event, the audience was encouraged to sing along with the following hymn…and they did so gladly!

“All people that on earth do dwell
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice!
Him serve with fear
His praise forth tell,
come ye before Him and rejoice.

O enter then His gates with praise
Approach with joy His courts unto,
Praise, laud and bless His name always,
For it is seemly so to do.

For why? The Lord our God is good:
His mercy is for ever sure;
His truth at all times firmly stood,
And shall from age to age endure. Amen.”

Enjoy the holiday music while it lasts and wherever it comes from; try not to dwell on any hypocrisy you come across along the way...and Merry Christmas from “all of us” at Two Catholic Men and a Blog!
Wise bloggers still seek Him!




Thursday, November 17, 2016

Why is the Dog Happier???


St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that good signifies “perfect being” and evil signifies “the privation of perfect being”1, so when a thing lacks a perfection it ought to have, we perceive the deficiency as an evil. When something is just how it ought to be we call this “good”.

The dog is happy living in the present moment, just being with “the pack”, even if the pack consists of only the dog and his master. This is “perfection” for the mind of a dog. The human is besieged with worldly thoughts; he is not content just being in the present moment. Being a child of God made in the image and likeness of God does not satisfy, even if this “Good News” is made clear to him as a Christian. The intellect dimmed by original and personal sin is obsessed with earthly thoughts and is easily distracted from the source of true happiness. This is an evil or a “privation of perfection” for the human mind.

We could speak of our lives in terms of two aspects, secular and spiritual. Our secular side refers to all the practical and worldly things we deal with and learn about to help us function in our communities, homes, and jobs. We need to pay attention to secular things. The spiritual side is about the Good, the Beautiful and the True and the meaning behind it all. If we get these last things right, the rest of life falls into place. Our spiritual life needs to be foremost in our mind.

Where do your idle thoughts go? What would happen if you put God at the absolute center of your thoughts? What we think ultimately translates to what we do. Since the intellect informs the will, we would end up doing the will of God. We would experience peace, become centered and "detached". Our spinning mind would no longer control us; no longer exhaust us.

In the end only one thing is necessary. It is the “one thing” spoken of at the house of Mary & Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Martha might think that she or Mary could love God above all other things and at the same time be constantly preoccupied with worldly things, but Jesus made it clear that she could not do both perfectly; imperfectly she could, but not perfectly.

It is the nature of the secular life to begin and end in our lifetime. Not so, however, of the spiritual life; it begins in this life, but lasts without end. The best is truly yet to come. As the Lord said to Martha, it is the part that shall never be taken away; because that perfect moment of being which can begin for us here will last without end in heaven.

“God wants us to live in the moment because we can only sanctify the present moment. We can’t change the past or control the future. The chance to do good or bad resides in the right here, right now.”2


  1. St. Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas’s Shorter Summa (Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 2002), p. 125.
  2. Karee Santos and Manuel Santos, The Four Keys To Everlasting Love (Ave Maria Press, 2016), e-book, p. 15.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Data Died on Election Night

No, not this Data…

I’m talking about polling data.

The previous post on this blog predicted that Trump would lose at about the same margin as Mitt Romney did in 2012, even though the candidates and the race itself were very different. No matter what electoral map you looked at in recent weeks, it was not reasonable to think that a blue state would magically turn red or a red state would magically turn blue. Even if Trump picked up one or two blue leaning states, he still would have needed all or most of the toss up states, which may have been about ten states depending on when you looked and with what map. If a toss-up is truly a toss-up, then it’s like flipping a coin. Flip a coin 10 times in a row and see if you get something like 8-10 heads. It’s possible, but actually try it and see if it happens. I’ll bet good money that it won’t.

If the polling data is wrong, then a prediction that flows from said data must obey the universal law of “garbage in, garbage out”. There was obviously a large group of people more interested in just voting for Trump than being polled about it. I suspect a lot of pollsters will be eating crow in the days to come with plenty of beaks and feathers to spare.

But can Trump make America great again? Depends on how we define greatness and what we are comparing it to. Maybe the economy will get better and the border will be less porous and maybe other nations and peoples around the world will “fear” us more, but is this true greatness?

Doing God’s will on Earth is what the Kingdom of God on Earth is all about and thus what greatness is all about. So what are the ways in which we do not do the will of God on Earth? Most dissent from Catholic teaching involves something to do with human sexuality and I’m afraid many of our newly elected or re-elected leaders care little about such things or all the data that surrounds them. Maybe these issues are seen as nothing to do with politics, but deep down they must know that politics and life are joined at the hip.

Abortion, homosexuality, contraception, fornication, marriage, divorce and remarriage all have an aspect of sexuality to them. Consequently, many, if not most, of the ills in our society can be traced back to these points of sexual confusion or dissension. What is the data surrounding all the unwanted pregnancies and the resulting increase in poverty and single parent homes? How about the number of unborn children being killed and that will be killed in the future? Think of the impact from broken homes due to divorce? Ignorance and dissent about the true purpose of sex also brings us pornography, sexual addictions, molestation, sexually-transmitted diseases and marriage confusion. The amount of emotional pain due to fornication is probably not considered by most as something that will impact the rest of the culture in any significant way, but think of the huge number of people bonding and breaking up with different sexual partners over and over again and how this impacts their character? How then, does their character impact everyone else around them?
The only way to make America great again, or great at all, is to actualize the prayer we say at every Mass. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” So as the dust settles on this particular election cycle, let’s continue to pray for that.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Decision 2016 - How Well Do You Make Decisions?

Imagine you had to make the following two decisions simultaneously (and you had no moral objection to gambling).

Decision #1:
Choice A: Sure gain of $240
Choice B: 25% chance to gain $1000 and 75% chance to gain nothing

Decision #2:
Choice C: Sure loss of $750
Choice D: 75% chance to lose $1000 and 25% chance to lose nothing



If you are like most people, you’d probably choose A and then D. No one in their right mind would pick C under any circumstances, right? Without a doctorate in statistics, but with some slow and effortful thinking, we can reason through the following if we focus on “the big picture”…

What do the following decisions taken together really mean?
Choice A and D = 25% chance to win $240 and 75% chance to lose $760
Choice B and C = 25% chance to win $250 and 75% chance to lose $750
(If you doubt it, go back and study it for a while)

Including choice C (a sure loss of $750) with choice B is a better gamble.1
I know...it's hard to believe.
The above is an example of a situation that is easily under analyzed by the average person, but over analyzing can lead to bad decisions as well. I think the current presidential election is an example of something currently being over analyzed. With all the talk of tax returns, an pneumonia and even the current president’s origin of birth, we easily get lost in the arcane details. How can we look at the big picture of a complex situation without be sidetracked by all the obscure and often irrelevant data?

The decisions about gambling shown above can be looked at objectively; decisions about elections get much more subjective, but here’s a way to look at it using a simplified version of a process we use where I work called Decision Analysis—except that it’s done in terms of Faith and Reason. First, some clarity on what’s most important…

-       What is important?
-       Reality is important.

-       What is Catholicism?
-       A universal way of seeing reality; a way of seeing in which we can best respond to the world around us.


Now, what are the specific ways in which government acts or has acted to undermine this reality (policy or law contrary to the Catholic faith)? What are the trends?

Please Note: What follows is just an example. You can make your own list of issues and follow each step using your own input, but be specific. Things like “Life Issues”, “Social Justice”, “Religious Liberty” and even "Temperament" are too general.

Step 1: List specific issues (as many as you want)
  • Euthanasia
  • Abortion
  • Torture
  • Marriage definition
  • Unjust war
  • HSS Mandate

Step 2: Think of the current impact of each issue and its potential trend
Issue
Impact
Euthanasia
Legal in 4 states, trend increasing
Abortion
>1 million babies killed per year (U.S.) and continuing unabated
Torture
Currently no reports of the gov. torturing people. Those in favor could reinstate it
Marriage Definition
Adds to sexual confusion/sin. Discrimination increasing for those holding a traditional marriage view
Unjust War
Dealing with world-wide aftermath. Those in favor could start a new war
HSS Mandate
Law suits taking time & money. Catholic Institutions closing or being punished. Higher cost to government to fill the gap.

Step 3: Find the most serious issue and give it a 10 (there can be more than one 10). Compare others to it and assign numbered weights by comparing to the 10. Remember that this is only an example.
Issue
Impact
Weight
Euthanasia
Legal in 4 states, trend increasing
7
Abortion
>1 million babies killed per year (U.S.) and continuing unabated
10
Torture
Currently no reports of the gov. torturing people. Those in favor could reinstate it
3
Marriage Definition
Adds to sexual confusion/sin. Discrimination increasing for those holding a traditional marriage view
8
Unjust War
Dealing with world-wide aftermath. Those in favor could start a new war
6
HSS Mandate
Law suits taking time & money. Catholic Institutions forced to close or be punished. Higher cost to government to fill the gap.
7

Step 4: Compare candidates. Score the best candidate for each issue with a 10. Note that 10 does not mean “perfect” and there can be more than one 10. Score remaining candidates (0–10) relative to the 10. Multiply score x weight and add the weighted scores.
Issue
Weight
Democrat
Republican
Libertarian
Green
Euthanasia
7
6
6x7=42
10
10x7=70
2
2x7=14
5
5x7=35
Abortion
10
2
2x10=20
10
10x10=100
6
6x10=60
4
4x10=40
Torture
3
10
10x3=30
0
0x3=0
9
9x3=27
10
10x3=30
Marriage Definition
8
2
2x8=16
10
10x8=80
5
5x8=40
2
2x8=16
Unjust War
6
7
7x6=42
2
2x6=12
10
10x6=60
7
7x6=42
HSS Mandate
7
5
5x7=35
8
8x7=56
10
10x7=70
4
4x7=28

Weighted Score
185
318
271
191
Please Note: At this point in the election cycle, carefully analyzing a third party candidate is like analyzing a fantasy…interesting, but basically a waste of time.

Step 5: Asses risk. Look at the candidate with the highest weighted score and ask, “If he/she was elected what could go wrong?” Are we willing to accept the risk(s) to gain the benefit of this choice? If yes, pick it. If not, repeat for the next best candidate.

Now, this is all very interesting, but let’s not kid ourselves; people won’t do this. Thinking is very hard and we are very lazy, so we make quick decisions based on intuition like choosing A and D in the gambling example above.

I try not to make decisions based solely on intuition, but I will make a prediction. I predict the Republican running for president will lose and at about the same margin as the 2012 election (332 to 206 electoral votes). But Donald Trump and Mitt Romney are so vastly different in how they present themselves; what makes me think the result will be about the same?

I think the “God Demographics” of society are changing. What do I mean by God demographics? As a society moves further and further from God, it must naturally gravitate more and more toward sin (we won’t stay still). If sin is the root of all unhappiness, then more sin means more dissatisfaction with life. If we are moving away from God, we must find another “savior” to liberate us from what is wrong so we can finally be happy.

In general terms (there are plenty of exceptions I'm sure), I think the portions of the electorate who are satisfied with life want less government involvement, fewer taxes, less regulation, etc. They tend to lean Republican. Those dissatisfied look to government as the ultimate source to make things right, just, fair, etc. They tend to lean Democrat. Other political parties never seem to gain ground either way. The current Republican presidential candidate is certainly not your typical candidate, but I think the pattern in God Demographics mentioned above will “Trump” everything else. We’ll see.

For those looking for a simpler analysis, I heard this on the Dennis Prager radio show not too long ago...
  • Door #1 says "Man Eating Lion."
  • Door #2 says "Perhaps Man Eating Lion."
Which do you choose?
We await your decision.
I'll take Door #2
BTW,

Trump = Door #2







1. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) p. 334.