Thursday, July 9, 2020

The importance of epic church art & architecture

St. John Cantius, Chicago (photo by author)
The early ecumenical council at Nicea explicitly condemned those opposed to venerating sacred iconography:
All those childish baubles and bacchic rantings, the false writings composed against the venerable icons, should be given in at the episcopal building in Constantinople, so that they can be put away along with other heretical books.
Second Council of Nicea, Canon 9, 787 A.D.
And the council exhorted that holy images be exposed in the churches in keeping with tradition:
We defend, free from any innovations, all the written and unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us. One of these is the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another’s message. Given this state of affairs and stepping out as though on the royal highway, following as we are: the God-spoken teaching of our holy fathers and the tradition of the catholic church — for we recognize that this tradition comes from the holy Spirit who dwells in her– we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways, these are the images of our Lord, God and saviour, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men.
You see how the writings of those opposed to icons were filed under heresy. From the earliest centuries, "tradition" included visual depictions of the gospels and the saints as vital to the spread of the gospel and ecclesial sanctuaries. The art serves the faithful.

A beautiful environment for divine reality is prefigured in the Old Testament. When God instructed Moses to build the ark in Exodus 25, He mandated use of gold, precious gems, and statues of cherubim. The ark was the dwelling place of God. The beautiful imagery corresponded to the divine invisible reality. 

The importance of holy images in churches remains in order unto today:
[I]n sacred buildings images of the Lord, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saints, in accordance with most ancient tradition of the Church, should be displayed for veneration by the faithful and should be so arranged so as to lead the faithful toward the mysteries of faith celebrated there. (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #318)
Pope Benedict XVI explained the necessity of "beauty" in conjunction with the Eucharistic celebration:
Everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty. Special respect and care must also be given to the vestments, the furnishings and the sacred vessels, so that by their harmonious and orderly arrangement they will foster awe for the mystery of God, manifest the unity of the faith and strengthen devotion.Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, #41, 2007
Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral) ca 1870s (public domain photo by Giacomo Brogi)
In the 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII explained how sacred images should tend "neither to extreme realism nor to excessive 'symbolism.'" It's easy to understand excessive symbolism, for an overly abstract or vague image detaches from sacred tradition and wouldn't contribute to catechesis if the viewer can't tell what it is. Extreme realism is, perhaps, trickier to understand why it should be avoided. However, consider a statue of St. Peter holding the keys and pontificating with his finger to the sky and a halo over his head. Would this depiction be "realistic" in that there could have existed a photograph of Peter in that exact pose holding a giant key? No, however, the key and halo and pose are representative symbols that reveal truths about the saint. If one considers a photograph and sacred art in this way, the art is the more "real" of the two. 

This brings us to a final consideration.

Old St. Mary's Church, Cincinnati (photo by author)
Christ Uses Visual to Depict Mystery
This notion of fostering awe for the mystery of God calls to mind a particular Scriptural passage combining the visibly glorious with an invisible mystery. The passage is the healing of the paralytic. The crowd doubted Christ's ability to forgive sins. Christ replied:
"Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, take up your pallet and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins" — he said to the paralytic — "I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home." And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We never saw anything like this!" (Mark 2:9-12)
Jesus used a visibly striking image to correspond to the unseen miracle of the forgiveness of sin. Christ used the visual medium to represent the unseen mystery. The healing of paralysis served as the icon of the forgiveness of the man's sin. St. John Paul II wrote to artists, "in a sense, the icon is a sacrament." The incarnate Christ is both God and man, the visible and invisible. Art that gives due regard to the incarnation principle stays true to tradition.

Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Naperville, IL (photo by author)
It's also important to recognize the manner of physical representation Christ chose to model a sacred reality. Did He perform some act of mundanity or plainness? No. The act was awe-striking. Nothing less would befit the unseen mystery. Mundane art and architecture is a contradiction against what transpires on the Eucharistic altar. 

This is why Church art, iconography and architecture must be epic, awe-inspiring, and befitting of divine mysteries. Even a small church can incorporate things like striking stained glass windows; an ornate crucifix, tabernacle, and altar; or small statues and icons to the extent possible. The goal "should be marked by beauty," as Pope Benedict said. Plain or abstract decor in a church fail to correspond to the Eucharistic mystery in the way Christ's healing of the paralytic delivered shouts of glory to God because it was so visually amazing. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Extraordinary ministers should not be ordinary

Recently, bishops showed a great zeal and meticulousness for regulations regarding the coronavirus. This ranged from closing down churches altogether to detailed protocols during the reopening phase. The goal is to benefit the physical health of the faithful. Likewise, such zeal to detail should be given to those norms that protect the spiritual lives of the faithful. After all, the spiritual life is the more valuable of the two. As scripture says, "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matt. 10:28)

Woman Receiving the Eucharist by FĂ©lix-Joseph Barrias (ca 1840-65)

Meticulous attention is worth giving to spiritual norms. One such norm that is often not followed pertains to extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. It is not uncommon to see lay extraordinary ministers even in small congregations, or even when there is a priest and deacon present. This is contrary to the regulation.

Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004) especially addresses proper use of extraordinary ministers. The document is subtitled On certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist.  Here are three key paragraphs (emphasis mine):
#151 Only out of true necessity is there to be recourse to the assistance of extraordinary ministers in the celebration of the Liturgy. Such recourse is not intended for the sake of a fuller participation of the laity but rather, by its very nature, is supplementary and provisional.
We see here that recourse to extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist is not a "participation" mechanism for the laity. It is something to be availed only out of "true necessity." Many churches are not reflecting this.
#154 [B]y reason of their sacred Ordination, the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion are the Bishop, the Priest and the Deacon, to whom it belongs therefore to administer Holy Communion to the lay members of Christ’s faithful during the celebration of Mass. In this way their ministerial office in the Church is fully and accurately brought to light, and the sign value of the Sacrament is made complete.
Recourse to extraordinary ministers is a concession that does not communicate the completeness of the sign that accompanies distribution of the Sacred Body and Blood by a bishop, priest, or deacon.
#157 If there is usually present a sufficient number of sacred ministers for the distribution of Holy Communion, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion may not be appointed. Indeed, in such circumstances, those who may have already been appointed to this ministry should not exercise it. The practice of those Priests is reprobated who, even though present at the celebration, abstain from distributing Communion and hand this function over to laypersons.
Many parishes by default avail extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist even for modest Sunday congregations or even for daily masses where there are a few dozen attendees, if that. Such unnecessary normalization of extraordinary ministers seems exactly the type of impropriety that Redemptionis Sacramentum warns against.
#158 Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when the Priest and Deacon are lacking, when the Priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged. This, however, is to be understood in such a way that a brief prolongation, considering the circumstances and culture of the place, is not at all a sufficient reason.
Even a priest by himself can get through a several dozen communicants in just a few minutes, particularly if a communion rail is availed. But what is, say, an extra five to ten minutes when such time can also be used for post-Communion prayer.  If one were to argue that the Liturgy is unduly prolonged, the very last part of the Liturgy that should be accelerated is the Eucharist. Christ's Body and Blood are the very "source and summit" of the one, true faith (CCC#1324). It would be easy to compensate, if necessary, to abstain, for example, from multiple verses of song that prolong the mass. Forgoing song altogether in favor of a cantor's Latin chant during processions would likewise award additional time that could be granted to the Holy Eucharist. A concise homily can also help. So could reciting, instead of singing, the Gloria. There are many other ways, if truly necessary, than trying to speed up Holy Communion.

If modern polls are accurate, upwards of two-thirds of Catholics don't even believe in the Real Presence. This is a tragedy. There is little excuse to avoid solutions that would better communicate the reality of the Real Presence. As Redemptionis Sacramentum (154) stated, the true value of the Eucharist is signally announced when distributed by an ordained minister. Limiting distribution of the Eucharist to bishops, priests, and deacons as much as possible is one simple remedy already prescribed by the Church.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

VIDEO: The flaw in simulation theory

Below is a 3-minute video based the February 2020 blog post The flaw in simulation theory.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

The flaw in simulation theory

Edit: June 6, 2020 see link to video version of The flaw in simulation theory here.

Simulation theory is the idea that what we believe to be the universe is actually a computer simulation and each of us are characters in this simulation resembling characters in a video game. A similar idea was the plot of the 1999 films The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor. In the films, the characters discover that what they believed was reality was really an illusion, a virtual reality computer simulation.

There are people today who take this idea seriously, including scientists or entrepreneurs. Before delving further, I'd like to begin with the unspoken flaw in this theory that is often absent from discussion on the topic.

Simulation believers build their idea on advancements in computer technology. And, the current trajectory of increasing technology tends toward indistinguishability from reality.

One of the more famous simulation theorists is industrial engineer Elon Musk, who, in 2016, answered a question on the topic thusly:
It's a given that we're clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality and those games could be played on any set-top box or or on a PC or whatever and there would probably be, you know, billions of such, you know, computers or set-top boxes. It would seem to follow that the odds that we're in base reality is one in billions. Tell me what's wrong with that argument. Is there a flaw in that argument?
The flaw is this: simulation theory is self-admittedly founded on the characteristics of a world that is considered an illusion. It is circular thinking.

The only way for real technological advancements to have occurred is if we are living in a true base reality. In the first part of their deduction, simulation theorists treat technological advancements as if they were real phenomena in a base reality. But, in their conclusion, simulation theorists say the very technological advancements on which they formed their premise are an illusion.

Online entrepreneur Naval Ravikant was interviewed in 2018 by Scott Adams, who asked him to name illusions people experience. Ravikant said "the illusion of reality":
Well the thing is if you understand simulation theory it's statistically likely that not only is there one level above there's zillions of levels above you. So in The Matrix Neo doesn't actually get out. He just pops one level higher. And now he's even more deeply trapped because he's trapped in a ***** environment and he's convinced it's real, which is the ultimate trap. Now he's not even looking for the next level up. Even one level beyond that, it's worse than that, because it's statistically likely, if you're in a sim, you're not some real world character representing a sim, you're actually an NPC. There's millions more NPCs in Call of Duty than there are real players. So you're you're probably just a computer simulation
Here we see another appeal to video games. There are millions more NPCs (i.e. non-player characters) in the game Call of Duty than human gamers actually controlling a character. Notice, to form his theory, Ravikant appealed to a virtual game created in the very world he says is an "illusion." The pool of data from which Ravikant derives his claim that "it's statistically likely" that there are "zillions of levels" of simulations is based upon a game and a reality that he says do not exist. His conclusion is absurd. Again, the simulation-theorist falls into the illogic of a circular reasoning that destroys its own premise.

The simulation theorist attempts to use some form of the following syllogism:
  1. Simulation technology is getting harder to distinguish from reality.
  2. Since billions of such simulation could be created by such advanced technology, the odds that any given "reality" is the base one is highly improbable.
  3. Therefore, what we believe to be reality (INCLUDING THE TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENTS IN STEP 1) is most likely an illusion. 
Now, the simulation theorist doesn't mention the part in caps in step 3, but it cannot be avoided. What the theory requires to be a real phenomenon in step 1 is reduced to an illusion in step 3. And, an illusion is not a reliable model for reality. (Incidentally, step 2 doesn't even logically flow from step 1 because there is no cause given for why the level of indistinguishability must have already been achieved in some other universe by some alien species.)

Again, simulation theorists are observing the development of computer and video game technology that is occurring within a realm they claim is not real. According to their theory, there isn't really development of computer technology occurring at all. The higher species who created "this" simulation programmed it so its characters can "do" the virtual illusion of "leveling up" their video game technology. But, if this is a simulation, those advancements have never actually occurred any more than there is a real Pac-Man who has colorful ghost enemies whom he sometimes eats.

Astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson is also known to seriously entertain the idea that we live in a computer simulation. At the 2016 event 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: Is the Universe a Simulation? Tyson closed in part by saying:
So, given our definitions, we’re the only intelligent species there ever was because we have poetry and philosophy and music and art. And then I thought to myself, well, if the chimpanzee has 98-whatever percent identical DNA to us—pick any animal. It doesn’t matter. Dogs, it doesn’t matter. Mammals have very close DNA to us. They cannot do trigonometry. Some people can’t do trigonometry. Certainly not these animals. So, if they cannot do trigonometry, and they have such close genetic identity to us, let’s take that same gap and put it beyond us and find some life form that is that much beyond us that we are beyond the dog or the chimp. What would we look like to them? We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence. ... Oh, you’re back from preschool? Oh, you’ve just composed a symphony. That’s so—let’s put it on the refrigerator door. We just derived all the principles of—oh, that’s cute.  And so that is not a stretch to think about. And if that’s the case, it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just the creation of some other entity for their entertainment
But, guess what. None of the things to which Tyson appeals as a trajectory of intellect are actually real if we are living in a simulation. He said it himself that "everything in our lives is just the creation of some other entity." If this is a simulation, the idea that humans have poetry is an illusion, just like everything else in the simulation. The animals we think we see aren't real. There isn't actually DNA nor DNA similarities. Etc. All these things would just be part of the illusory world created by some theoretically advanced computer programming species.

Is our universe just a sophisticated computer simulation?
In my recent book, Hollow Anchors of Morality, I discussed the nonsensical claim that morality can exist in a strictly material world devoid of free will. If someone were to claim morality exists in an artificial simulation just as it does in a base reality, the error would be similar.

Think back to the examples of video games to which simulation theorists appeal in their circular error. If one NPC "kills" another NPC in Call of Duty, did an "immoral" act occur in reality? If "Mario" throws the penguin off the cliff in Super Mario 64, did a real Mario commit a real act of cruelty? Of course not. No one was harmed in reality. But, if we were just characters in a similar kind of game, we wouldn't be any more real than the NPC.

Even if a simulation theorist wanted to argue that there are "real" persons operating the characters in the simulation through some futuristic virtual reality headgear, there still wouldn't be acts of morality committed by or against the pixels they are controlling. We see this directly when observing people playing, say, a battle game and "shooting" each others' characters in the game, but, of course, not in reality. If an act of unreal violence was committed against an unreal illusion of a person, what crime was done? Nothing actually happened other than pixels rearranging, no matter how sophisticated the graphics might be. The simulation theory essentially strips the universe of moral obligation.

Of course, an overly violent or sexually charged game, for example, could influence a real person playing it to commit a sin, but only because the person is outside the game and in reality. The pixel constructs in an illusory realm lack the necessary quality of being made in the image of God (a principle also discussed in Hollow Anchors) in order for morality to pertain to them in the first place. Thus, the idea of morality is absurd when confined to the activity of a computer chip.

From a related Catholic perspective, apologist Jimmy Akin discussed simulation theory on his blog and on Jimmy Akin's Mysterious World. He concluded it would not matter in the order of salvation. When addressing the consequences of living in a simulation, he said, "We still have the same three elements—God, the spiritual world, and the natural world—and all three interact."

One of the objections to simulation theory is that in order to create an "ancestor simulation" of an actual snapshot of the historic universe, it would require "a computer memory that requires more atoms than what’s available in the universe."

This objection is useful if limited to discussing the aforementioned simulation theorist's premise #1: Simulation technology is tending more toward indistinguishability from reality.

By limiting the thought exercise only to our advancements in computer technology, there may well be physical limits that would prevent a simulation detailed enough to be indistinguishable from a base reality. However, remember, the simulation theorist ultimately ends up claiming that this universe is an illusion, along with everything in it, including advancements in video game technology.

It is also worth mentioning, in the aforementioned 2016 debate on simulation theory, not one scientist on the panel said the odds were in favor of us being in a simulation. When asked what the odds were, they said: uknown, 17%, 1%, 0%, and 42%. Only Tyson, who was hosting, said the likelihood might be "very high."

Theoretically, if we did live in a simulation, it is useless to point to qualities inside the simulation to deduce we are in one. There's no reason to think the physics of any simulation must be a reflection of the physics of its world's creator any more than Pac-Man should assume there are entities in the real world like him, who move faster and faster the more they eat.

At the end of the day, simulation theory is wild speculation, not some deductive reasoning of intellect. Other science fiction theories, such as our memories swapped out periodically such that we never know it, seem to have just as much a logical basis as simulation theory. Such theories are not demonstrated by our experience, even if they are theoretical possibilities.

Finally, the irony of modern simulation theory, is that the very premise on which it is founded depends on this world being a real base reality, for their entire theory is built upon its contents.