Archive for 2014

Interstellar is a visually stunning movie which has been criticized because of perceived scientific errors and the character Dr. Amelia Brand’s claims about the power of love.  With regard to wormholes, black holes and relativity theory, I’m in no position to comment.  However, the criticisms of the latter dismiss potentially profound insights into the realms of ethics and epistemology (theory of morality and knowledge respectively) because it raises the issue of the nature of reality and mankind’s place in it—something not unrelated to science by the way.  Such criticisms also miss the chief error of the movie, which is theological (SPOILER ALERT).

The story focuses on a crew of scientists and astronauts who are on a mission to find a planet either to transport humanity to from a dying earth or to restart mankind on such a planet with fertilized eggs.  Dr. Brand’s comments occur during a discussion among the three crew members concerning which of the two planets they should go to in order to accomplish their mission.  Dr. Brand supports going to the planet where her fiancé is.  All the objective data point to the other planet, and Cooper, the pilot, accuses her of personal bias.  Dr. Brand responds with the following reflection on love. “Love isn’t something that we invented. It’s observable. Powerful. It has to mean something.  Maybe it means something more, something we can’t yet understand. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it.”

There are two types of complaints about Dr. Brand’s speech—aesthetic and rationalistic.  Its purported aesthetical sin is that Dr. Brand’s mushy emotial mystical gobbledygook has no place in science fiction, which is supposed to be about science.  Those who react in this way often claim to love science fiction, but in reality what interests them is futuristic technology; that is, they like the mechanics or apparatus of the story but not the story itself.  They fail to appreciate that science fiction is a genre that lends itself to philosophical and theological reflection on a reality beyond the merely technological.

The rationalist complaint is that truth is discovered only by a combination of empirical observation, experimentation and reason, a perspective that is often equated with science. Instead, it is derived from a modernist worldview that limits reality to matter that can be observed by the senses and interpreted by unaided human reason.  This is the worldview of scientism, which should be distinguished from science, and it cannot be established on its own premises.  Limiting knowledge only to the observable and measurable is an affirmation that cannot be demonstrated by observation.

Both the science fiction technological enthusiasts and the advocates of scientism are rightly upset with Interstellar because not only does Dr. Brand’s speech go against their desires and beliefs but so does the actual plot.  It turns out that Cooper is wrong and Dr. Brand was right about which planet that they should go to.  Furthermore, Dr. Brand’s father had been unable to find an equation that would allow for humanity to be transported to another planet.  Because he believed that Cooper would not abandon his family for the mission to save mankind, he lied about the feasibility of the transportation option.  In reality, the strong familial love between Cooper and his daughter Murphy, who becomes Professor Brand’s assistant, helps to forge a link via gravitational waves across time and space that allows her to solve the equation and save humanity.  In both cases love is more ethical and leads to the truth in contrast to a merely rationalistic science.

How is it that the emotion of love could actually be a “physical” force in the universe?  The answer is that love is not a mere physical force.  1 John 4:8 states that God is love.  Medieval thinkers understood this truth to be the chief explanation of motion in the universe.  Dante concludes his Divine Comedy speaking of God as “The love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Paradisio, Canto XXXIII.145).  Aristotle in Metaphysics Book XII, Chapter 7 writes that God, the final cause, “produces motion as being loved.”  Just in case anyone is concerned that I’m advocating returning to a geocentric view of the solar system, Isaac Newton wrote that God “is not duration or space, but he endures and is present.  He endures forever, and is everywhere present; and by existing always and everywhere he constitutes duration and space. …  In him are all things contained and moved.”[1]  The majority of the founders of modern science, like Newton, believed that they were observing how God works in the world.  Modern man and his science need to recover this worldview to overcome the false dichotomy between faith and science.

The theological error of Interstellar is when Cooper triumphantly proclaims that the “they” that created the wormhole is “us.”  It still sees man and his love as the key to the universe and survival.  Dr. Brand’s plea that love is from a “higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive” needs to be taken more seriously.  From a Christian perspective it makes sense that love puts us into contact with a higher dimension than ours, indeed to the center of reality.  When we pray, when we worship, when we act in love, we connect with the heart of the creation who is the truth and will guide us to the truth and in the truth.  Interstellar is a fascinating and accomplished film, but it needs Immanuel, “God with us.” It needs to realize that the name of Immanuel is Jesus who will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:23).  Merry Christmas!

[1] Principles, II, 311, ff. quoted in E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, 2nd rev. ed. (Garden City, NY: Anchor Doubleday, 1954), p. 258.

Yesterday at our church, a lady got out of the car next to me.  She opened the door and helped a young passenger who looked like he had Down’s syndrome.  I walked behind them.  As I approached the church’s front door, a wife waited for her husband who is blind.  During announcements, one of the elders welcomed a long-time member who had just had surgery.  He was sitting with his arm in a sling. Read the rest of this entry »

Years ago our then three-year-old son Andrew and a neighbor friend were playing with a little wooden train set.  A minor dispute arose over the proper shape for the tracks.  Andrew placed them the way we had previously.  The neighbor boy said he didn’t want them to be in a circle.  Andrew said, “It’s an oval.”  In a tone of exasperation his friend asked, “What’s an oval?”  Pointing at the tracks, Andrew responded, “That’s an oval.”

When our older son was about four, a somewhat similar incident occurred.  One of the ladies in our church asked Aaron what his favorite animal was.  He said that he liked dinosaurs.  She then made the fatal mistake of asking him which dinosaurs he liked.  After Aaron, whose delight in primeval reptiles knew no bounds at that age, had rattled off tyrannosaurus, stegosaurus, diplodocus, pterodactyl and who knows what else, she wisely hugged him and told him that she loved him.

Without even considering doing otherwise my wife and I had taught our sons to identify an oval as an oval and a circle as a circle and the proper names for dinosaurs.  Why would we as parents teach them something less exact or even erroneous that would have to be corrected later?

A young child’s mind is perfectly capable of grasping the difference between two geometrical shapes and remembering dinosaur names.  Indeed, they actually enjoy learning.  Unfortunately, we adults, who have often lost our childlike desire to learn, feel that children should be spared as long as possible the drudgery of developing an extensive vocabulary and the arduous task of accurate speech.

The problem is not new.  In her historical novel, Pallas and the Centaur, Linda Proud quotes Quintilian (c. AD 35-c. 100), “See that the child’s nurse speaks correctly and do not allow the boy to become accustomed even in infancy to a style of speech which he will subsequently have to unlearn.  There should be attached to the boy one person who has some knowledge of speaking who can correct any errors.”

I teach at Cair Paravel Latin School in Topeka, which is a classical Christian school.  I had the privilege of observing an elementary school art class.  The teacher used proper artistic terms and the names for artistic movements and their characteristics.  I thought about taking notes, but I was too embarrassed.  The children already knew the terms. I later asked the teacher why she didn’t use simpler terminology.  She answered that the children were capable of understanding the terminology and that there was no reason to teach them some supposedly simpler vocabulary that they would have to relearn later.  She was right, of course.

Our high school is also called the rhetoric school because at this stage we want to stress teaching our students to express their ideas accurately, eloquently and persuasively.  With this goal in mind I give the students vocabulary lists from their reading that they are expected to know.  I share a classroom with another teacher and am sometimes a disruptive force.  During his class, I interjected a playful rebuke to a student, using one of the new vocabulary words.  She answered, accurately using a different vocabulary word.  I responded in kind, and she hit me with another vocabulary word.  Then the teacher told us to behave.  It was fortunate for me, because I was out of words.  The student had beaten the master.  What fun and what a joy for me!

When I was in college, the highly respected District Attorney for Indianapolis was asked what the two most practical courses that he had taken were.  Without hesitation he responded, “Logic and Latin.  Logic because it taught me to reason accurately, and Latin because it taught me to speak clearly.”

As I survey the lack of eloquence, accurate reasoning and clarity of expression in today’s public speaking, I like to think that Cair Paravel and schools like it will be producing tomorrow’s leaders who will plead eloquently for the oppressed, apply accurate reasoning to society’s thorny problems and clearly proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to a world that needs to hear from the one whose truth will set us free.







My dear sister visited us a couple of weeks ago, and I made the mistake of serving her coffee in my Shakespearean Insults Mug.  It’s an hilarious mug, covered with witty insults such as “I do desire that we be better strangers,” and “not so much brain as ear wax.”  Who couldn’t love something made by a company called “The Unemployed Philosophers Guild” and that tells you on the bottom of the mug that “for best results, use other side?”

Unfortunately, my sister started addressing me as the “anointed sovereign of sighs and groans.”  My wife, whose more formal British etiquette forbade her from using the mug, insulted me with the same phrase today.

Some might say that I have little to sigh and groan about.  I have a beautiful wife who is a gourmet cook and whose health insurance covers me.  I come from a loving family, am physically healthy, have a nice home with friendly neighbors and a great teaching job.  God loves me, forgives my sins and helps me live more uprightly, although admittedly I could use a little more help on that last point.

Still I have two grounds for sighs and groans.  You can call me “the anointed sovereign,” if you wish, but I think these two are justifiable.  They’re the chaos of colors and unhelpful dictionary definitions.

Now I love colors as much as the next guy, but that’s just the issue.  Women seem to have some extra sense for perceiving different shades of color.  We’ve been remodeling in our house, and my wife wanted me to help choose the paint colors.  First, there was some sort of set of golden colors, although they all looked brown to me.  The living room needed to be painted.  I asked why.  She said there were three different colors on the four walls.  They all looked like weak coffee with a lot of cream to me or some kind of off white.  Out came the swatches.  Did you know that one website has fifteen different types of off white?

I’ve been told that the reason for all these different names for paint colors is because they’re copyrighted.  This is capitalism gone wild.  Where are all our totalitarian bureaucrats that want to standardize everything?  This is a field white unto harvest.  Notice Jesus said white. I’ll bet the grain wasn’t really white, but white was good enough for him.

I decided to retreat to my reading of Linda Proud’s Renaissance novel, Pallas and the Centaur.  Alas, I was cursed.  I should never have chosen a highly literate authoress.  I ran across two words that I didn’t know, both having to do with colors—raddled and nacreous.

Indeed, I was doubly cursed by my second bane—inadequate dictionary definitions.  “Raddled related to ruddle, to paint with ruddle.” “Ruddle, verb to mark or color with ruddle.”  Finally, ruddle as a noun is a red variant of ochre used for marking sheep and coloring.  This did end up being an interesting search.  I discovered that ruddle or red ochre was used to dye fabrics.  Its appearance in the novel was rather negative.  “The beauty of Florence is like cosmetic paint on a raddled whore.”  Red ochre for your rouge, ladies?

The dictionary problem reoccurred with nacreous.  In the novel a maid is described as nacreous.  The dictionary defines nacreous as “of, or pertaining to, nacre, resembling nacre.”  Not very helpful if you don’t know what nacre means.  It reminds me of the time when I wanted to see how my college Webster’s defined worldview.  It said “weltanschauung.”  This is German for “worldview.”  Anyway, nacre, I discovered, is “mother of pearl.”  The maid must have looked whitish, although which of the fifteen options for off white applied to her I cannot say.

Well, that’s enough from the philologer.  I’m going to leave and walk by our bathroom painted tropical nut.














Do you remember the three “kingdoms” of our sciences classes—mineral, plant and animal?  While this elementary science has many facts right, it may have the whole idea wrong.  In fact, limiting the world to these three kingdoms dehumanizes mankind and represents not science but the materialistic philosophy of scientism. Read the rest of this entry »