Mangled Science, Mangled Truth, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

Mathematicians sometimes employ the imagery of a three-dimensional landscape to represent the challenge of solving complex problems. Imagine such a landscape, replete with peaks and valleys, stretching to infinity. Now imagine we want to find the highest point on that landscape, but we can only see the points that we’ve visited.

We’re standing on the highest point we’ve found, but are we as high as we could be? Are we really on a molehill, thinking it’s a mountain only because we’ve not yet discovered what real heights look like? How can we explore this terrain without spending an eternity randomly trying new locations?

Mathematicians have conjured a variety of mechanisms for grappling with this problem. They deploy algorithms, for example, that search for higher ground. They grapple with not only “solving” the problem represented by the theoretical landscape, but of inventing methods that can solve a variety of such problems more efficiently than a random walk. [Read more...]

Mangled Science, Mangled Truth, Part 1

It’s one of those intellectual nuggets you tuck away for dinner parties: A recent psychological study finds that people are more likely to express politically conservative values after seeing a U.S. flag. And this one: People are more inclined to support inequality when exposed to money.

Throw these scientific factoids at your conservative neighbor during the next block barbeque. You’re reactionary because you’re bought and paid for, Harry. And these American flag napkins just reinforce your worldview.

The problem with both studies, however, is that other researchers have been unable to replicate them. Worse, this problem may extend to a great many findings from psychological studies.

If you doubt that this matters, consider that as I write this, major publications are gleefully reporting a new study by a Cornell psychology PhD who has found that casual sex can be very good for the emotional well-being of young people. Maybe she’s right, maybe she’s wrong, but I’m wagering nobody will bother to find out, which means you can choose to believe her findings if it suits you. [Read more...]

Opting for Paradox: 25 Years of Image

The poet Ezra Pound made the phrase “Make It New” the rallying cry of artistic modernism. In one of life’s little ironies, he obtained the phrase from an ancient Chinese text.

It seems that every time you get excited about making it new, you are forced to recollect the words of another ancient, the moralist Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

So which is it?

I believe I’ll opt for paradox.

To be sure, there isn’t much novelty beneath that burning ball of gas in the sky, but in another sense each day that I wake the world is made anew—and I find myself in need of re-creation. I forget so many important things, things that would help me live a fuller, richer existence. And because I much prefer living in the past or the future to the present, which is precisely where each new moment arrives.

Cultures and societies are no different from me. The individual and the collective alike get stuck in solipsism; we fear what new thing might disturb our settled ways and make demands of head and heart. We fear the stranger knocking at our door or crossing our barbed-wire fence.

Truth, when I do manage to glimpse it, flits away, never to alight in quite the same place. A single sighting won’t do for me—perhaps it was a trick of the light. I need to see that truth flash out from many different forms and circumstances before it gathers a cumulative weight, a gravitational attraction. While each form and circumstance is new, each points back to something old and known.

I am thinking these thoughts because Image is about to launch its 25th anniversary celebrations and because our year-end fund-raising appeal will determine what sort of resources we have to pursue our mission next year—and launch us into our next 25 years.

[Read more...]

Francis and the Via Negativa Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

In retrospect, my reaction to Pope Francis’s election makes so much more sense when I consider that during my tenure at the college my artistic guiding lights were St. Francis and the painter Francis Bacon. About as far from a saint as one can imagine, Bacon is infamous for showing us things that perhaps we would rather not see: nightmarish self-portraits, unnerving studies of screaming popes, and writhing and wrestling biomorphic forms.

But Bacon was not interested in merely horrifying us. He was painting, as he said in an interview, to “excite himself”; spreading paint in a way that was expressive of his anger, his lust, and his love of painting. In a rare explanatory moment, he revealed to an interviewer that his numerous paintings that reference crucifixion were not religious but “an act of man’s behavior to another.”

Some moralists have said that his paintings are corrupting and harmful, but I’ve always felt that they do no more harm than if one took to hanging around a butcher shop or meat packing plant. To me, his paintings, like all great art, make us confront essential questions about the human condition.

My rather vague and unrefined view of Bacon was tested when, in 2004, at a conference at Notre Dame on the future of art in a Post-Christian world, I attended a keynote delivered by the eminent philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre titled “What Makes Religious Art Religious?”  Using examples of paintings by El Greco and Mark Rothko, he made the claim that what makes a painting religious is not subject matter but when a “religious intention is communicated to the viewer.”

Over the course of about forty-five minutes, MacIntyre thoroughly supported his thesis, and then impressively fielded questions bent on picking apart his thesis for another thirty minutes.

[Read more...]

Why Should Darkness Seem Truer Than Light?

In her memoir, Pieces of Someday, my friend and periodic “Good Letters” guest writer Jan Vallone shares the story of the time her writing instructor—“an aging Clint Eastwood” named Professor Véreux—questioned the integrity of her writing. After class one day, he pulled Jan aside to discuss her most recent assignment one-on-one.

“I’m returning your memoir,” he said. “The ending is dishonest.”

Of course, since the piece Jan had submitted was a work of non-fiction—a memoir—I found Professor Véreux’s conclusion questionable at best. How could he possibly know whether Jan was telling the truth or not?

Jan found herself at the receiving end of this criticism when she enrolled in a summer writing program at the Bread Loaf School of English in Ripton, Vermont. The assignment that drew Professor Véreux’s fire focused on Jan’s time as an English teacher at a Jewish high school—a yeshiva—and her interactions with a troubled student named Kalindah.

In the end of the story, Jan succeeds in reaching this unreachable student, and shines much-needed light into Kalindah’s darkness. More than a mere writing instructor in this story, Jan becomes a channel for the flow of God’s grace.

[Read more...]


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X