The Corruption of The Church

Excerpted from a letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to his son Michael, dated the 1st of November 1963, published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 2006) edited by Humphrey Carpenter, pp. 336-337:

I remember clearly enough when I was your age (in 1935). I had returned 10 years before (still dewy-eyed with boyish illusions) to Oxford, and now disliked undergraduates and all their ways, and had begun really to know dons. Years before I had rejected as disgusting cynicism by an old vulgarian the words of warning given me by old Joseph Wright. ‘What do you take Oxford for, lad?’ ‘A university, a place of learning.’ ‘Nay, lad, it’s a factory! And what’s it making? I’ll tell you. It’s making fees. Get that in your head, and you’ll begin to understand what goes on.’

Alas! by 1935 I now knew that it was perfectly true. At any rate as a key to dons’ behaviour. Quite true, but not the whole truth. (The greater part of the truth is always hidden, in regions out of the reach of cynicism.) I was stonewalled and hindered in my efforts (as a schedule B professor on a reduced salary, though with schedule A duties) for the good of my subject and the reform of its teaching, by vested interests in fees and fellowships. But at least I did not suffer as you have: I was never obliged to teach anything except what I loved (and do) with an inextinguishable enthusiasm. (Save only for a brief time after my change of Chair in 1945 — that was awful.)

The devotion to ‘learning’, as such and without reference to one’s own repute, is a high and even in a sense spiritual vocation; and since it is ‘high’ it is inevitably lowered by false brethren, by tired brethren, by the desire of money*, and by pride: the folk who say ‘my subject’ & do not mean the one I am humbly engaged in, but the subject I adorn, or have ‘made my own’. Certainly this devotion is generally degraded and smirched in universities. But it is still there. And if you shut them down in disgust, it would perish from the land — until they were re-established, again to fall into corruption in due course. The far higher devotion to religion cannot possibly escape the same process. It is, of course, degraded in some degree by all ‘professionals’ (and by all professing Christians), and by some in different times and places outraged; and since the aim is higher the shortcoming seems (and is) far worse. But you cannot maintain a tradition of learning or true science without schools and universities, and that means schoolmasters and dons. And you cannot maintain a religion without a church and ministers; and that means professionals: priests and bishops — and also monks.† The precious wine must (in this world) have a bottle,‡ or some less worthy substitute. For myself, I find I become less cynical rather than more — remembering my own sins and follies; and realize that men’s hearts are not often as bad as their acts, and very seldom as bad as their words. (Especially in our age, which is one of sneer and cynicism. We are freer from hypocrisy, since it does not ‘do’ to profess holiness or utter high sentiments; but it is one of inverted hypocrisy like the widely current inverted snobbery: men profess to be worse than they are.)

*Or even the legitimate need of money.

†At least they were certainly once necessary. And if we are pained or at times scandalized by those we see close to, I think we should remember the enormous debt we owe to the Benedictines, and also remember that (like the Church) they have always been in a state of succumbing to mammon and the world, and never finally overwhelmed. The inner fire has never been extinguished.

‡The unseemly cobwebs & dust, and the stained label, are not always signs of impaired contents, for those who can draw old corks.

Published in: on May 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Appropriately Proud

Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Erinnerungen 1848-1914 (Leipzig: K. F. Koehler, 1929), pp. 227-8. Trans. Andrew Rickard:

He was appropriately proud of his great nation and the British Empire. As a true patriot he was willing to admit the validity of another’s patriotism and pride. United in this spirit, we good friends sent our sons off to face each other on the battlefield.

Published in: on March 18, 2012 at 8:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Rise & Root

Rise & Root

Published in: on January 1, 2012 at 10:50 pm  Leave a Comment  


Old tractors aren’t all romance and fond recollections. It’s an old joke but I can remember my grandfather lighting a little fire under his Fordson to warm up the oil in the crankcase so the motor would turn over easier, hopefully to make the tractor start quicker. That’s fun to recall, but not any fun to have to do. Starting tractors could be a brutal affair. I was watching when my father was crank-starting our Massey Harris Challenger and the crank “kicked” and nearly broke his leg. Tractors increased the pace and intensity of farm work. Don’t let anyone tell you that the piston engine made farming easier than farming with horses. Tractors just meant you could get more field work done in a day. The wet year of 1947, we kept our tractor running day and night to get the crops in because we could. One afternoon Dad, completely exhausted, put me, a child, on it to “work ground” while he laid down under a tree at the field’s edge and fell asleep. He meant to nap only a little while. I knew how to stop the tractor by turning the key off but I did not know how to start it up again so if I stopped, Dad would have his sleep cut short. When it looked like the tractor was overheating, I just kept going round and round the field till it stopped of its own accord. Dangerous business. One of my cousins in the same desperate situation tied his little boy, age 6, in the tractor seat so he couldn’t fall out and had him “work ground” that way, guiding tractor and disk over the plowed ground while the father followed up with another tractor and the planter and kept a sharp eye on the son. Can you imagine what the labor laws would do to a farmer today who tried that?

In the days when we abandoned horse farming for factory farming, we abandoned biology for machinery and let the futile thought of getting rich override our common sense. After that farming became grueling slave work even if it was faster. We didn’t save time. Lights on the tractor just meant we could work longer. It wasn’t long after 24 hour work days that the Sunday day of rest went off the calendar too. Too bad. Even heathens like me need a Sunday day of rest.

— Gene Logsdon, The Contrary Farmer: “Old Tractors Never Die

Published in: on December 10, 2011 at 2:13 am  Leave a Comment  


One of the ablest agnostics of the age once asked me whether I thought mankind grew better or grew worse or remained the same. He was confident that the alternative covered all possibilities. He did not see that it only covered patterns and not pictures; processes and not stories. I asked him whether he thought that Mr. Smith of Golder’s Green got better or worse or remained exactly the same between the age of thirty and forty. It then seemed to dawn on him that it would rather depend on Mr. Smith; and how he chose to go on. It had never occurred to him that it might depend on how mankind chose to go on; and that its course was not a straight line or an upward or downward curve, but a track like that of a man across a valley, going where he liked and stopping where he chose, going into a church or falling down in a ditch. The life of man is a story; an adventure story; and in our vision the same is true even of the story of God.

— G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Project Gutenberg: March 2010)

Published in: on December 9, 2011 at 6:59 pm  Leave a Comment  


Reading the definition of nihilism on Wikipedia recently it really struck me that it is just the logical outcome of modern western belief.

I would be horrified at the suggestion that one should believe in God because everything would be better that way.  My personal journey was via nihilism, I guess.

I really do prefer to believe that which is true / real,  if possible.

My feeling is that any honest person who does not believe in God has to become a nihilist. When they get around to thinking about it.

What else?

— Commenter “John B”, commenting on a Samizdata blog post: “Not as rational as Sam Harris likes to claim

Published in: on August 24, 2011 at 4:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Physical Donkeys

Although the following task is so arduous that it is unlikely that anyone could ever complete it in practice, it is theoretically possible that a person could write down a system of equations that, in accordance with the fundamental laws of physics, completely and accurately models the behaviour of every subatomic particle that goes to make up the body of a donkey. However, if a physicist were to actually do this, he would find almost immediately that he was modelling the wrong thing. As the donkey respires, as dead cells are sloughed off its skin, as its digestive system incorporates new nutrients into its body, the collection of particles of which it is composed is constantly changing. The physicist’s system of equations would no longer be modelling the donkey but rather something else.

If the physicist wished to continue modelling the donkey, he would be forced to continually update the set of particles in his model. However, there is no way he could do this without leaving the realm of physics and asking a biologist for help. There is nothing in the fundamental laws of physics that can tell him what is and what isn’t part of a donkey. Such information exists only in a different mode of explanation, that of biology. Of course, this is in fact true right from the beginning: the physicist could not even have begun his experiment without first asking a biologist to identify a donkey.

We might be tempted to think that the physicist could circumvent this problem by modelling everything. If he were to model everything in the entire universe, surely he would be modelling the donkey too, since it has to be in there somewhere? This is rather the point: the donkey most certainly is in the universe but it is not part of the physicist’s model. It is not possible, from the physicist’s model alone, to deduce anything about a donkey. Therefore, we must conclude that the physicist’s model of every fundamental particle in the universe is not in fact a model of everything that exists.

Well, there is one other option open to us. We might conclude that the donkey does not exist. If we had some other reason to believe strongly that only that which is modelled by physics is real, then we might try to convince ourselves that donkeys are not real. We may succeed – after all, people are capable of convincing themselves that all sorts of crazy ideas are true – but this isn’t really an option for anyone who wishes to be rational. Since the argument applies just as well to people as it does to donkeys, the correct response to anyone who claims that physics explains everything is to ask, “Who said that?”

Perhaps one source of confusion is the fact that clearly donkeys are composed of physical matter. Although that matter is constantly changing, at any one instant in time the donkey is made up of some set of fundamental physical elements. Thus even though a donkey is not the same thing as the matter out of which it is composed, its existence is dependent on matter. If there were no matter, there would be no donkey. But it is important that the donkey’s existence does not depend on any particular matter. A healthy donkey will live to around 30 years old, sometimes another decade or more after that, by which time it is highly likely that not a single atom in its body was present when it was born. The facts in the previous sentence cannot possibly be deduced from a physicist’s model of the universe alone: therefore the physicist’s model cannot possibly be a complete explanation of the universe.

I chose to illustrate my point by comparing donkeys with those entities that appear directly in the laws of physics. I did this for a rhetorical reason: I thought that the claim that donkeys do not exist would be so obviously absurd that my point would be easily understood. However, I could have made the same point by comparing any entity that is not fully explicable in terms of its constituents with those constituents. For example, the entities of chemistry — a covalent bond, say, or a particular molecule — are also real things about which facts exist that cannot be deduced from the laws of physics alone. This leads us to an important point: if we wish to have a complete, scientific explanation of the world then we cannot rely on physics alone. Physical law is not a complete description of the universe.

Note that I am not claiming that different things are composed of different substances: everything I have said is consistent with the view that everything is made of matter. All I am saying is that the method of explanation we call physics, i.e. the description of the interactions of fundamental physical particles according to the laws of physics, is not capable of explaining or even describing all that exists. As such, there is no reason to grant physical explanations any sort of primacy over other sorts of scientific explanations: they are not more real, more true or more basic than the explanations of, say, chemistry or biology.

We may still want to attach some sort of prestige to physics, over and above that attached to other sciences, because it deals with the basic units out of which everything else is composed. Although the interactions of subatomic particles are not all there is to be said about a donkey, you might think that it is at least made of them. In other words, we can construct a meaningful hierarchy of matter — protons contain quarks, atoms contain protons, molecules contain atoms, cells contain molecules, donkeys contain cells, or something along those lines — and so we should consider the indivisible units at the bottom of the hierarchy to be fundamental, the basic units of the universe. However, it turns out that there are no such basic units. Even the subatomic particles of modern physics can themselves be understood as disturbances in underlying fields, as patterns in a substrate [1]. Furthermore, there is no logical reason why a “high level” entity such as a donkey must be composed of a particular sort of “low level” entity: to the best of our knowledge, donkeys as we know them are always composed of familiar atoms (mostly carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen), which are themselves composed of familiar subatomic particles such as quarks and electrons, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t be composed of functionally similar yet different entities. That is the point: donkeys could be composed of any sort of entity, as long as they behave in the right sort of way. Perhaps we live in a universe in which the only entities that behave in the right sort of way to make up a donkey are those that we have thus far observed in donkeys: quarks, electrons and so forth. But perhaps we don’t. Either way, there doesn’t seem to be any logical necessity for it to be so, which puts something of a damper on any claim that subatomic particles are really “fundamental” in any meaningful way.

It seems clear that there is nothing special about physics as compared to chemistry or biology. It is not the case that biology can be reduced to chemistry or chemistry reduced to physics. The entities of biology are every bit as real as the entities of chemistry and physics — they exist in their own right just as much as a hydrogen bond or a quark exists — and they cannot be fully explained in chemical or physical terms. Furthermore, there is no reason to stop at biology: we may, for example, employ the same style of argument to show that just because our minds depend for their existence on our brains, that does not mean that our minds can be reduced to our brains.

I wish to promote the view that the different sciences do not correspond to different levels of abstraction but to different modes of explanation, suited to explaining different aspects of existence. We do not use the language of biology to investigate life only because it is too difficult to do so with the language of physics. We could not, no matter how clever we are or how long we worked, write the equivalent of a biology textbook using only the tools and concepts of physics or chemistry. To attempt to do so would be tantamount to a category mistake. Organisms are not mere abstractions on top of underlying chemical reactions: they are as real in their own right as any electron or photon. There is a hierarchy of sciences only in the very weak and not particularly interesting sense that the entities studied by one science have not so far been observed to exist unless the entities of a “lower level” science also exist.

I suppose the final conclusion of this argument, which like a depressing amount of contemporary philosophy is more concerned with “defeating the defeaters” than with anything positive, is to point out something that ought to be blindingly obvious anyway, if only we still lived in enlightened times: a person is every bit as real as, and cannot be reduced to, the material parts out of which he is made.

[1] For more details on this, see Steve Grand in Creation: Life and How to Make It (Harvard University Press, 2003) pp. 36 & 37, and also in the comments on my previous blog article Forms, and J. R. Lucas in Reason and Reality (Ria University Press, 2009, also available from his website Chapter 13 “Reductionism”.

Published in: on May 10, 2011 at 12:38 pm  Leave a Comment  


The motor road, inhuman, unnatural and altogether relentless, drives like a ram through the countryside with as much regard for its forms and design as a hot poker drawn over a carpet.

— H.J. Massingham, quoted (with complete reference) by Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti (I highly recommend you go and read the whole quotation)

Published in: on April 9, 2011 at 2:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pipe Smoking

The Rewards of Happy Pipe Smoking

Published in: on March 4, 2011 at 3:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Observably Confounding

Useful in a scientific sense means that the idea has observable consequences. That means it has some kind of effect that can be detected by carrying out an experiment. By “experiment,” we mean any measurement of anything at all; the swing of a pendulum, the color of light emitted by a burning candle flame, or the collisions of subatomic particles in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (we’ll come back to this experiment later on). If there are no observable consequences of an idea, then the idea is not necessary to understand the workings of the universe, although it might have some sort of chimerical value in making us feel better.

— Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, Why Does E=mc2?, Da Capo Press (2009), pp. 11 & 12

I wonder how much confusion is caused by the tendency of scientists to confound the observable with the measurable. (Is there an experiment we could perform to elucidate the matter?)

Published in: on January 28, 2011 at 6:38 pm  Leave a Comment