Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Laughter Will Save the World


We read a brief essay by John Jalsevac. I had students ask me: "Why did you have us read about underage drinking and pot-heads?" Now, if you are walking away form this essay with the impression that it is about underage drinking or cannabis consumption then I have to insist that you read it again.
The essay was Jalsevac's reflection on the despair and sadness he finds in his peers and people of his, that is, of YOUR generation.
Please answer the following questions about the essay:
1. Jalsevac calls laughter the "most natural expression of awe and appreciation." Write about the last time you had a hearty laugh? Then briefly describe the last time you felt a genuine sense of awe or appreciation? What do these two events have in common?
2. Comment on the idea that "the pleasure of breathing alone" could be enough to make the author "rock with laughter". If this seems absurd to you, explain why? If it seems reasonable, then defend the statement. (note: writing "it's just breathing" is not an explanation, but an observation.)
3. Why, after two years of being "clean" would someone revert back to such self-destructive behavior as drug use? What do you think the author means by the "vague, ethereal, despairing 'spirituality' of drug users."? Give an example if possible, to illustrate what you mean.
4. Twice we find the observation that "words are not enough" to convince someone to break an addiction. What will succeed where words fail? Why?
5. Jalsevac desribes his (your) generation as a "generation of addicts". Explain why he comes to this conclusion. After offering his explaination in your own words, assess whether you arrive at the same conclusion.
6. The author describes this generation of young people as one that "laughs so seldom" and when laughter comes, it is not the laughter of joy but of despair. Yet, as a teacher of teenagers, I find that you all seem to laugh quite a bit (of course, some more than others). So is the author correct that your laughter is out of despair? Do you seek humor 0nly as an escape from the harsh reality that confronts you? Or is your laughter at least occasionally a laughter of genuine joy?
7. Often young people (and old) resist watching the news, or turn to sources like the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Do you think this is because the author is correct that to be well informed is to have one's "peace being repeatedly shattered" by what we find in the news? Elaborate on your response. (video of laughter from despair on the Daily Show. WARNING - mildly offensive language)
8. Go to a mainstream media source and observe how many stories are "depressing" and saddening. What percentage of the headlines seem to be about these types of "dark" stories? What type of image do you get of our society by a quick glance at the headlines?
9. The author writes "I think maybe I should...join my generation in their restless orgy of forgetfullness. I think that I should be squeezing out of thought altogether, not just reading and listening; that I want to squeeze out of thinking, to shed that rotten skin." Do you think this is why so many teenagers turn to the mind-numbing pleasures of alcohol, drugs, sex, etc.? Is it the pursuit of anything positive that these pleasures actually provide? Is it merely to escape the monotony and boredom of their very existence?
10. Jalsevac comments about teens at a party, "They drank with a curious desperation, as though every sip was vital to their continued existence at that precise moment." Statistics regarding underage drinking in high schools and binge drinking in colleges seems to bear witness to this. What is it about alcohol that provides the illusion of being so "life-giving"? How is it, in fact, rather life-stealing?
11. Why does the author think that humans laugh? How does our laughter grow out of our understanding of and relationship with God? How does making gods of ourselves steal our laughter and leave us in despair?
12. How is the laughter of a saint different from that of an ordinary person? How may it be "the only theological lesson that this desperate generation will liston to."?
Ad Jesum per Mariam,
Mr. Basso

Allegory of the Cave Applied to the Matrix

One of the most direct examples we find of Plato's allegory anywhere is in the film the Matrix, a movie that is as full of philosophy as it is special effects.

Below are the two clips we viewed in class for you to revisit. In the first Neo is given the option of leaving the "cave" of the matrix. In the second we see the traumatic impact of being liberated from the only existence on has ever known.
Clip 1: the red pill or the blue pill?

Clip 2: emerging from the matrix

Look for the "Laughter will save the World" questions coming soon.

Ad Jesum per Mariam,
Mr. Basso

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Allegory of the Cave

The following is a dialogue from the Seventh Book of Plato's Republic and is commonly referred to as the allegory of the cave.
Socrates: Now then, I proceeded to say, go on to compare our natural condition, so far as education and ignorance are concerned, to the state of things like the following. Imagine a number of men living in an underground chamber, with an entrance open to the light, extending along the entire length of the chamber, in which they have been confined, from their childhood, with their legs and necks so shackled, that they are obliged to sit still and look straight forwards, because their chains render it impossible for them to turn their heads round: and imagine a bright fire burning some way off, above and behind them, and an elevated roadway passing between the fire and the prisoners, with a low wall built along it, like the screens which conjurors put up in front of their audience, and above which they exhibit their wonders.
Glaucon: I have.
S: Also figure to yourself a number of persons walking behind this wall, and carrying with them statues of men, and images of other animals, wrought in wood and stone and all kinds of materials, together with various other articles, which overtop the wall; and, as you might expect, let some of the passers-by be talking, and others silent.
G: You are describing a strange scene, and strange prisoners.
S: They resemble us. For let me ask you, in the first place, whether persons so confined could have seen anything of themselves or of each other, beyond the shadows thrown by the fire upon the part of the chamber facing them? Certainly not, if you suppose them to have been compelled all their lifetime to keep their heads unmoved. And is not their knowledge of the things carried past them equally limited?
G: Unquestionably it is.
S: And if they were able to converse with one another, do you not think that they would be in the habit of giving names to the objects they saw before them?
G: Doubtless they would.
S: Again: if their prison-house returned an echo from the part facing them, whenever one of the passers-by opened his lips, to what, let me ask you, could they refer the voice, if not to the shadow which was passing?
G: Unquestionably they would refer it to that.
S: Then surely such persons would hold the shadows of those manufactured articles to be the only realities.
G: Without a doubt they would.
S: Now consider what would happen if the course of nature brought them a release from their fetters, and a remedy form their foolishness in the following manner. Let us suppose that one of them has been released, and compelled suddenly to stand up, and turn his neck round and walk with open eyes towards the light; let us suppose that he goes through all these actions with pain, and that the dazzling splendour renders him incapable of discerning those objects of which he formerly used to see the shadows. What answer should you expect him to make, if someone were to tell him that in those days he was watching foolish phantoms, but that now he is somewhat nearer to reality, and is turned toward things more real, and sees more correctly; above all, if he were to point out to him the several objects that are passing by, and question him, and compel him to answer what they are? Should you not expect him to be puzzled, and to regard his old visions as truer than the objects now forced upon his notice?
G: Yes, much truer.
S: And if he were further compelled to gaze at the light itself, would not his eyes, think you, be distressed, and would he not shrink and turn away to the things which he could see distinctly, and consider them to be really clearer than the things pointed out to him?
G: Just so.
S: And if some one were to drag him violently up the rough and steep ascent from the chamber, and refuse to let him go till he had drawn him out into the light of the sun, would he not, think you, be vexed and indignant at such treatment, and on reaching the light, would he not find his eyes so dazzled by the glare as to be incapable of making out so much as one of the objects that are now called true?
G: Yes, he would find it so at first.
S: Hence, I suppose, habit will be necessary to enable him to perceive objects in that upper world. At first he will be most successful in distinguishing shadows; then he will discern the reflections of men and other things in water, and afterwards the realities; after this he will raise his eyes to encounter the light of the moon and stars, finding it less difficult to study the heavenly bodies and the heaven itself by night, than the sun and the sun's light by day.
G: Doubtless.
S: Last of all, I imagine, he will be able to observe and contemplate the nature of the sun, not as it appears in water or on alien ground, but as it is in itself in its own territory.
G: Of course.
S: His next step will be to draw the conclusion, that the sun is the author of the seasons and the years, and the guardian of all things in the visible world, and in a manner the cause of all those things which he and his companions used to see.
G: Obviously this will be his next step.
S: What then? When he recalls to mind his first habitation, and the wisdom of the place, and his old fellow- prisoners, do you not think he will congratulate himself on the change, and pity them?
G: Assuredly he will.
S: And if it was their practice in those days to receive honour and commendations one from another, and to give prizes to him who had the keenest eye for a passing object, and who remembered best all that used to precede and follow and accompany it, and from these data divined most ably what was going to come next, do you fancy that he will covet these prizes, and envy those who receive honour and exercise authority among them? Do you not rather imagine that he will rather imagine that he will feel what Homer describes, and wish extremely"To drudge on the lands of a master, Under a portionless wight." and be ready to go through anything, rather than entertain those opinions, and live in that fashion?
G: For my own part I am quite of that opinion. I believe he would consent to go through anything rather than live in that way.
S: And now consider what would happen if such a man were to descend again and seat himself on his old seat? Coming so suddenly out of the sun, would he not find his eyes blinded with the gloom of the place?
G: Certainly, he would.
S: And if he were forced to deliver his opinion again, touching the shadows aforesaid, and to enter the lists against those who had always been prisoners, while his sight continued dim and his eyes unsteady, - and if this process of initiation lasted a considerable time, - would he not be made a laughingstock, and would it not be said of him, that he had gone up only to come back again with his eyesight destroyed, and that it was not worth while even to attempt the ascent? And if anyone endeavoured to set them free and carry them to the light, would they not go so far as to put him to death, if they could only manage to get him into their power?
G: Yes, that they would.
S: Now this imaginary case, my dear Glaucon, you must apply in all its parts to our former statements, by comparing the region which the eye reveals, to the prison-house, and the light of the fire therein to the power of the sun: and if, by the upward ascent and the contemplation of the upper world, you understand the mounting of the soul into the intellectual region, you will hit the tendency of my own surmises, since you desire to be told what they are; though, indeed, God only knows whether they are correct. But, be that as it may, the view which I take of the subject is to the following effect. In the world of knowledge, the essential Form of Good is the limit of our inquiries, and can barely be perceived; but, when perceived, we cannot help concluding that it is in every case the source of all that is bright and beautiful,- in the visible world giving birth to light and its master, and in the intellectual world dispensing, immediately and with full authority, truth and reason;- and that whosoever would act wisely, either in private or in public, must set the Form of Good before his eyes.


1. How might you apply the Allegory of the Cave to the narrative of Christianity?

2. How might you apply the Allegory of the Cave to contemporary culture?

3. Where, in the allegory, do you find elements that represent Truth? Elements that represent Facts? Explain your answer.

4. On the basis of the allegory alone, what do you think Plato's personal metaphysical stance is and why?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Metaphysics and Mystery

The following article by Father Raymond J. de Souza appeared in the National Post, June 10th, 2010.

Stephen Hawking, the biggest brain among the big brains of physics, took the star turn here for the recent World Science Festival. That he is now spending several weeks at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., is a feather in the cap of Canadian science.
But before he left New York this week, he gave a widely noticed interview to Diane Sawyer, in which she asked him about the biggest mystery he would like solved. “I want to know why the universe exists, why there is something greater than nothing,” Hawking explained.

That is, as the ancient Greeks did not say, the granddaddy of all philosophical questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? No matter how clever you are, if you don’t have a compelling answer to that question, you can only aspire to knowledge — albeit impressive knowledge — but not wisdom.

It is a question for which natural science — astronomy, physics, mathematics — offers no help. In order to do science, there has to be something to observe. Science explains a great deal about how things behave, but nothing about why things exist in the first place. Moreover, science presupposes a certain order in the natural world in order to apply the scientific method. How order can emerge from nothingness is not a scientific question, but a philosophical one. It is, as the ancient Greeks did say, beyond physics. The word for that is metaphysics. And Stephen Hawking, a master of physics, is perfectly in line with the ancient philosophers when he acknowledges that physics itself points to the deeper questions of metaphysics.

Hawking does not believe in the personal God of Abrahamic revelation, whose creative love is the answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing. That’s fine insofar as metaphysics does not have to be theological. Metaphysics is simply the point to which human reason, applied in rigorous research, arrives. The study of how things develop and change must drive the even mildly curious intellect to ask why things exist at all. As Hawking acknowledges, his discipline cannot provide an answer to that “mystery” — but it forces the question.
Yet in today’s academy, metaphysics has almost disappeared. Natural scientists pay it no heed, and philosophers devote themselves to matters obscure and trivial. Theology has no significant place in the modern university. So the great mysteries — the ones little children ask their parents about — are neglected by our most sophisticated thinkers.
The philosophy of science is the name given to the study of what aspects of reality are addressed by the various scientific disciplines, and the limits of their competence. For example, mathematics is essential to understand the nature and properties of music, yet mathematics is not particularly useful in explaining the reaction of a young woman serenaded by the one she loves. Our scientists today study almost nothing of the philosophy of science. Neither do our philosophers.

“Religion has run out of justifications,” [author and journalist, Christoper] Hitchens concluded in his last book. “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important.”

Hawking knows better. We have very powerful telescopes, but even the most powerful cannot tell us what there was before there was anything to see. The microscope can allow us to observe the atom, but what instrument can measure love or liberty or justice?
There was a session at the World Science Festival titled, “The Limits of Understanding.” It dealt with the idea that there are some mathematical truths that cannot be proven. It is an exceedingly complex and fascinating proposition. Yet all disciplines need to know the limits of their understanding. Theology is important, but of little use in determining whether a tumor is malignant or benign. Biochemistry can tell us in exacting detail the constitutive elements of a human being, but not why he has human rights. Theoretical physics tells us marvellous things about the order in the universe, but tells us little about what is beyond physics, including the origin of that order itself.

The great mystery of why there is something rather than nothing is not one that can be solved in the way that Stephen Hawking would like. Yet the fact that he knows it remains a mystery shows that he has achieved a measure of wisdom, the search for which begins with the realization that there are realities which our eyes alone, even extended by the telescope and microscope, cannot see.
National Post
But as it is written: "What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him," this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God. 1 Cor. 2: 9 - 10
1. What is the great mystery that Hawking would like to solve?
2. What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?
3. What must you do in order to "do" science? What must you presuppose about the world in order to apply the scientific method?
4. What is metaphysics? Why will all rational thought ultimately arrive at metaphysics?
5. Why does Christopher Hitchens think that religion has essentially outlived its usefulness to humanity?
6. Be able to formulate your own theory about the relationship between science and theology. Are they opponents, allies, or do they merely tolerate one another? Why?

Welome to Senior Theology

Seniors, welcome to your on-line home for senior theology assignements, articles, links, and resources. I will post as many of our articles as are available, as well as discussion and study questions.

There will also be links to assist you in your senior project research. Bookmark the site and check back often.

Ad Jesum Per Mariam,
Mr. Basso