That’s So Second Millennium
Episode 098 - Uncertainty Principles, Principled Uncertainty, and Science in Times of Catastrophe

Episode 098 - Uncertainty Principles, Principled Uncertainty, and Science in Times of Catastrophe

March 30, 2020

In this episode, Bill and Paul discuss the coronavirus, economics and risk, and the L'Aquila earthquake trial.

  1. Paul and Bill continued a discussion that began in the previous episode. They allowed the sense of gravitas they felt in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic to push them along a path through many uncertainties—where it’s tempting to rely on one’s GPS guidance system and, if possible, an autonomous (self-driving) vehicle. But should human beings relieve themselves of all responsibilities for self-guidance, and if not, how should they accept and address those responsibilities?
  2. Underlying this discussion was the perception that society has chosen to confront the pandemic through the wisdom of science, which boils down to a healthy use of reason, which of course is a God-given gift. But we are also blessed (and cursed?) with the gift of sensing that reason is not enough. Can we put ourselves on automatic pilot by trusting completely in calculations of risk and probability and a in human understanding that can’t take all possible values and outcomes into consideration?
  3. Paul cited observations by Hilaire Belloc, a great British writer and Catholic commentator from the early 1900s. Belloc argued that being “practical” and “realistic” is  not enough, especially if a human being seeks to make decisions with Godlike precision, effectiveness, and comprehensiveness. For example, Paul pointed out that “social distancing” and related policy weapons being utilized against the spread of the Coronavirus are not enough to say that we are systematically reducing the risk of death or harm in an easily calculable way. For example, forbidding public gatherings of any significant size can be seen as a wise precaution against certain people becoming infected, but little thought is given to the fact that all the cancelled meetings of twelve-step programs means people who were being helped to address their own particular issues and risks might suffer tangibly from losing their support network.
  4. At some point, there is a need to acknowledge that some risks, like human death, cannot be eliminated, and a perfect society cannot be achieved. This meshed with Bill’s concern about whether “social distancing” might push man people further toward the phenomenon of social polarization, characterized by isolation, indifference and marginalization in many instances. Or will the experience of being distanced wake us up to the unhealthy results of these characteristics and rein us back from the precipice of thinking we can define and enforce the right answers that will yield the best outcomes?
  5. Ultimately, Bill and Paul agreed that humans seeking to provide humane, prudent leadership in a crisis must be “all in” as participants in a robust civic life in a well-ordered civil society that respects the many sides of individual experience. Can we put all our faith in the decision-making of a political system, especially if we have not made an equivalent commitment to enrich the body politic—and indeed to contribute in ways that go beyond mere gestures of political participation, such as voting?
  6. We must take into account a larger part of the story of human challenges, not risk management alone. At the time of this writing, for example, Bill learned that the Governor of Pennsylvania, after having ordered the shutdown of all liquor stores in order to slow the spread of the virus, was reconsidering his decision. According to news reports, experts had told him that a sizable portion of the alcohol-dependent population could suffer severe consequences from suddenly withdrawn access to hard liquor, meaning harm would be done by other means.

Image by Angelo Giordano from Pixabay.

Episode 097 - Social Distancing and Loners in the American Psyche

Episode 097 - Social Distancing and Loners in the American Psyche

March 23, 2020

Bill and Paul discuss the topic on everyone's mind, the coronavirus and social distancing, through the lens of social polarization and isolation that already so characterized American, Western, and modern society in general.

  1. One should not assume that “social distancing” breaks connections. Paul and Bill got together to talk about the subject and found that it connects to many other things, at least as an intellectual exercise. But also with many emotional, spiritual and sociological implications.
  2. Bill said that, upon first hearing about “social distancing,” he instinctively connected it to a phenomenon he ponders and writes about a lot—the phenomenon of social polarization. (He writes about it in his OnWord blog, and in 2018 he wrote a book (When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?) reflecting on Pope Francis’ concerns about the polarizing effects of contemporary news and digital information flows.
  3. Social distancing, apart from the validity of scientific claims that it is needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, looked to Bill like a physical, societal manifestation of the polarization trend which leads to the isolation, exclusion and defamation of people. It encourages them toward confirmation bias because they choose to hear only the opinions that back up their pre-conceived notions.
  4. Paul said social distancing also seems to tie into America’s infatuation with the “loner.” He recalled the self-imposed isolation discussed in Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone.
  5. Both participants in the conversation connected the concept of loner with many ideas: the modern assumption that being a loner need not carry high risks, like it once did, because of the protection offered by government; the omnipresent promise among colleges that they will prepare their students to become “leaders” as opposed to followers; the observation by Alexis de Tocqueville (in Democracy in America) that Americans of the 1800s were instinctively individualists; and the more recent observation that we live in an age of celebrity when everybody wants to famous, even in relatively impotent, purposeless  ways.  This latter notion was discussed by Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft in an episode of EWTN’s “The Philosopher’s Bench.”
  6. It is especially sad that, at a time when Pope Francis points out that the Church has many valuable responses to the tendency toward social polarization and isolation, “social distancing” has prompted an end to Mass attendance. As remarked in a blog post by David Seitz, OFS, one of Bill’s favorite Franciscan commentators, the loss of civic solidarity and civil conversation is a profound kind of penance.

Image by Austin Monroe from Pixabay.

Episode 091 - Christian Communication

Episode 091 - Christian Communication

December 23, 2019

Bill and I continue our discussion about parish life and communication. We discuss using the tools of sociology (and just awareness of the broader culture) to understand what is going on in parishes without getting carried away and forgetting that Christianity was always meant to change us (avoiding the Andrew Greeley mistake). We talk a bit about where podcasters like us fit into the ecosystem, or the Kingdom of God for that matter, and in that context I mention the great Catholic Feminist podcast. In the end we return to the question of what we should do as parishoners at the bottom of the ladder of subsidiarity...the only spot where we can truly make a difference.

Episode 056 - Darcia Narvaez on the (other) tragedy of the commons and moral/economic disengagement in civilized society

Episode 056 - Darcia Narvaez on the (other) tragedy of the commons and moral/economic disengagement in civilized society

April 22, 2019

Today we present the second half of the interview with Darcia Narvaez, social scientist at Notre Dame and a specialist in childhood inculturation, attachment, and bonding issues.

We start out this half of the interview with a discussion of what Karl Polyani called the "great transformation" of European society, involving the breakdown of the pre-modern order and its safeguards for a stable population by means of understandings about community use of land, perhaps resulting in the popularity of emigration to the New World by dispirited, dispossessed, and to some extent dangerous people.

Several times Darcia disparages "hierarchy," understood in its general sense of social stratification, which she or other who have influenced her theorize to have caused huge social catastrophes, including the corruption of the Christian Church by its integration into the late Roman state and the collapse of populations and cultures in the New World on contact with the colonizers from Europe. Late in the podcast I ask her explicitly whether there is any benefit to civilization... let us know in the comments on Facebook or Podbean what you think about the answer!

Darcia's claim is that humans are by nature more egalitarian than other animals. This goes right down to childrearing, where human children, born so completely needy, have an innate expectation that their requests for assistance will be met. She comments that there is a Native American word, "wetiko," that was used to describe an attitude thought of as akin to a sickness that characterized those who acted in an aggressive and exploitative way toward others. Whether or not premodern peoples were all more free of this, it's certainly a common feature of civilized peoples. The Old and New Testaments certainly testify to this, and the need to confront it with compassion and an egalitarian attitude. We discussed the specific example of the disease of the large organization, society, business, or government, in which those at the top are simply disconnected, both intellectually and morally, from those at the bottom.

We mentioned subsidiarity, and might have mentioned clericalism... the social science of these concepts will hopefully be fodder for future podcasts.

Post Christian - What Are Churches For?

Post Christian - What Are Churches For?

April 19, 2019

Photo by LeLaisserPasserA38 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78064310

I was minding my own business, trying to do a little work on my aunt's laptop while mine is in the shop, when I noticed this Washington Post article about 1) massive donations to repair Notre Dame de Paris after its roof caught fire on Monday, taking the 19th century spire with it, and 2) criticisms of the hyper-wealthy people who will open their checkbooks to replace a European landmark but not whatever other social causes the critics think most important.

My first thought on seeing the fire was simply, "How does this still happen?" Fires have of course consumed any number of cathedrals, palaces, temples, city halls, fortresses, and other buildings of note over the centuries, but we have an awful lot of fire suppressant and monitoring technologies these days. Repair work of some kind was already going on as shown by the scaffolding over the roof prior to the fire.

The article drew out a second line of thought that had been lurking in the back of my mind. France is of course the birthplace of modern Western secularism, the country where the hypocrisy of the Catholic Christian establishment yielded directly to the raging adolescent fury of revolution. It is where the modern pattern of punishing Christianity for the sins of the hierarchy and political establishment by pretending it never had any intellectual foundation was first constructed.

It's a mercy, in that environment, that so much of France's medieval legacy survived in the form of art and architecture. In a way it's good that the French opinion of their own culture is so staggeringly high. Yet these churches are so empty. When I visited France in 1998, I was deeply saddened by this. I wandered through many of these churches in Paris, Saint-Malo, Tours, and Amboise. The churches whose names you might recognize are kept up as museums; there are many, less famous, that are falling into decay even within towns like Amboise. The sprinkling of priests and faithful is spread across the remaining churches exceedingly thinly.

It all makes me feel a little better about our situation here in the United States. Still, when my local parish was holding its campaigns to rebuild the 19th century church and 1920s school building, I kept thinking, "I am glad that we can be this generous to repair roofs and redo tuckpointing... how about we put out this effort to fill these buildings with new people hearing the Good News about how Jesus can actually be in their lives after we rebuild them?"

I listened to two podcasts by Bishop Robert Barron and John Stonestreet of the Colson Center about the fire and how it has been discussed in the media. They commented that today's secular culture wants to focus on Notre Dame de Paris as simply a landmark, an icon of French culture, a pretty building from a long time ago. The desire seems to be to strip this structure of its builders' purpose: to construct a memorial to the transcendent human being whose death we commemorate today, and all the truths that come to us after recognizing him. A memorial place in which the True God, the Being upon which all reality is constructed and the Creator that constructed it, could be worshipped in that man's name.

To be fair, I think the culture of modern media does this to almost everything. We live in such a shallow time. When we confront memorials of centuries past, whether buildings like Notre Dame or books or works of art, we would do better to consider for a while why their makers did what they did and whether human beings with a different outlook on life have something to teach us, or to remind us.

Post Christian: Money

Post Christian: Money

April 11, 2019

Picking up some loose ends from the CNAG post of the same title. I remember the sense of brimming over with things to say when time and a change of focus from the personal to the social and political brought that post to a close, but very little has come back to me in the weeks since.

The core, in any case, and the reason why it calls for a Post Christian post, is the point that the Christian Church risks its integrity by the very fact of being a social institution possessing property and money. Reality dictates that even the persecuted Church has a certain quantity of resources (one thinks of the treasure that his persecutors thought to extract from St. Lawrence) but the legal and above all the official Church tends to accrue tremendous wealth. This wealth contrasts sharply and painfully with the life and teaching of its Founder, who commented that in his wanderings he owned no home (one thinks of the tent that long housed the Ark of the Covenant) and that it was easier for a camel to pass a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter heaven.

This contrast has motivated Christians to take action to restore the integrity, at least in their own personal lives, since before the time of Constantine. Antony went out into the desert, surely not the first Christian hermit but a supremely influential one. Francis, the little poor man, attracted legions of followers seeking authentic discipleship to Jesus, and war was waged for decades and centuries between those who tried to live as other religious did and those who tried to get as close as they could to the theoretical ideal of complete lack of property. The Reformation and the anticlerical Revolutions of the latter half of the second millennium stripped the Catholic Church and its religious orders particularly of their influence, position in society, and much of their wealth.

It seems to me that we are living in the last, dying days of the institutional Church (and Pope Benedict has gone on record in some of his books as thinking much the same). I hope that's the case, because there is something better waiting for us if we get more serious about taking the pieces of the Church we have been given and assembling them, brick by brick at the local level, into something more nourishing and authentic, more concerned for the poor and the needy (which includes not being satisfied with simply handing them material goods to get them through in a state of dependency).

Post Christian: Ideals and Means

Post Christian: Ideals and Means

April 2, 2019

It's fascinating to me how well progressivism is explained by two aspirations:

  • Trying to be more Christian, which is to say more kind, enlightened, truthful, and focused on what really matters in life, than Christians. (A common lie that progressives tell themselves is that Christians really aren't concerned about these things... they are of course aided and abetted by the large quantity of half- or quarter-hearted Christians out there.)
  • Trying to do this really impossible thing without any recourse to a God that actually loves them or has any particular purpose for the world.

In reality, of course, something has to give, and that something is either the ideals or the means.

If the means break down, then the progressive is forced to give up on straight secularism and goes searching for some kind of enlightenment... possibly a form of post-Protestant Christianity (or post-Reform Judaism) that they can have on their own terms, or some kind of imported spirituality that can likewise be sampled cafeteria-style to get around whatever it might be in their life that they're not willing to let go: some sexual practice they insist is not only okay, but mandatory, or some pain they suffered at the hands of institutional Christians that they intend never to forgive the church or Church for allowing, etc. Still, this seems to me to be by far the better path. Part of the truth and the power that God gives to humanity, whether or not they know the name and the mission of Jesus of Nazareth, is better than none of it.

If the ideals break down, they seldom break down all the way. Unfortunately, the easiest thing to do is to sneer at other people, the rich and powerful but also the wife-beater-wearing Trump voters, for doing destructive things while making excuses for themselves. They continue to drive their SUVs an hour each way to work so they can live in their 3,000 square foot house in a neighborhood where they feel "safe," i.e., away from black folks. They may post something on social media about how horrible it was that so-and-so molested or sexually harassed people, while continuing to sabotage their own relationships via pornography, masturbation, or just generally refusing to confront their fear to engage in honest intimacy with friends or sexual partners or spouses or children.

Bonus Episode - Patricia Bellm: Compartmentalization vs. integration

Bonus Episode - Patricia Bellm: Compartmentalization vs. integration

March 28, 2019

Compartmentalization by students at Notre Dame

Bill: ethics as a checklist

The Science & Religion Initiative (see Baglow & Martin interview)

The need to get the same message in the biology class and in theology class

The change in the teachers after a few days in the workshop: divisions fade out

It's a challenge having an "athletics" teacher in the program (phys ed)...

Yet there are things: doping and respect of the body

Patricia believes "you become what you eat" applies to violent video games as well

Feed yourself and your children good things instead

CNAG: Money

CNAG: Money

March 22, 2019

Money is a fascinating topic to take up in this connection because doing so illuminates some serious, jagged fractures within both of our contemporary political camps of “conservative” and “progressive” thought, and indeed, within our own minds.

“Whatever may be said in praise of poverty, the fact remains that it is not possible to live a really complete or successful life unless one is rich.” – Wallace Wattles

“Hello? How gross is that [quote]?! It offended me to my hippie core, until I understood what it was really saying and that, erm, you kind of can’t —not if you want to fully express yourself, anyway… you have to let a lot go because it will absolutely go up your nose if you’re still working on your issues around it being OK to make money.” – Jen Sincero, talking about that quote and the book containing it

“Money is not the root of all evil!” – Cathy Heller (if not an absolute quote, extremely close)

“Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” – Paul of Tarsus, 1 Tm 6:9-11

Money, it’s a hit
Don’t give me that do-goody-good bullshit
” – Pink Floyd

Money. Wealth. It unites people as diverse in their political thinking and way of life as Oprah, the Koch brothers, George Soros, El Chapo, Vlad Putin… and hatred of it, renunciation of it, or contempt for those who have it (important distinctions, admittedly) unites Francis of Assisi, Karl Marx, Mother Theresa, and as Jen Sincero notes, your general hippie, hipster, and mousy academic type.

People want money. They want various of the things you can exchange money to obtain (food, housing, pretty objects, fast objects, sexual favors…). Unsurprisingly, given that, they want money for the mere fact of having money, or rather, the emotions related to security and power that possessing money provides.

As far as practical advice goes, the right attitude toward money and wealth seems to me to require a lot of work on that nagging issue I identified a while back: we’re either bored with the golden mean, or it’s too complicated for us to think about two things at once.

Of course, to get by in modern society and do much of anything to help people, we need money. On the other hand, we all experience the temptation to spend money irresponsibly. We spend money on things that will not help others even in the indirect (and completely real) sense that we need to help ourselves in order to help others. We spend money on things that are actually destructive: alcohol, strip clubs, access to crappy TV shows that we know are eating up our lives and giving nothing back, Lexus SUVs, a fifth set of power tools. We exalt this money thing to the position of Higher Power and guiding light for our lives, piling up ever more of that security and power far past any point of diminishing returns. We spend time thinking about and managing this money to the exclusion of living a real human life.

Christianity warns us about all of that early and often. What we then seem to have done, here in the West, is bend part of ourselves back too far in the other direction and try to carry on with an unrealistic set of expectations about not being one of those bad rich people, yet wanting all the things that money can buy. If we want to be Mother Theresa, yet also drive Jen Sincero’s Audi, then yeah, we’re going to come into conflict with ourselves.

At this point, of course, the net widens…

CNAG is the Catholic-New Age Glossary… not backed by Webster’s or any other authority. These reflections are written by Paul, and they here on That’s So Second Millennium because they are an attempt to find the points ofharmony between different strands of psychology and spirituality as they are being explored and lived out in Western culture today.

Episode 051 - Patricia Bellm: Responsibility and control in science and engineering

Episode 051 - Patricia Bellm: Responsibility and control in science and engineering

March 18, 2019

What do we want to do in this podcast?

Goals for the year

Values of experience, e.g. Mexico: solar ovens from recycled materials

Credit consulting, etc., for exploited women in Mexico

The little estate in Mexico

Back to credit cards & exploitation of ignorance

Responsibility of those to whom much is given

Bringing it around to science

Career and sacrifice and little deaths

Chris, the handicapped man at the ND Center for Social Justice

The ethics of "fixing" or preventing Chris from being the way he is

The lack of philosophic background and the intellectual amnesia of contemporary science

Philosophy of science and the disappointment of 20th century physics, but the culture goes on unaware

Science, fundamentally cannot replace faith

...this is where Patricia makes that claim that science is about control

Ethics of changing human beings, other elements of creation

Bill poses the relativism question again

Patricia responds that "you can control science"

Everyone confronts the same Reality, and we cannot control it, but we prefer the illusion that we can