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The  Choice 3 — Dan Jocobsen

July 16, 2014
The Aleppo Codex reached Israel nearly fifty years ago (in 1958). Over the years, many efforts have been made to locate the missing parts of the codex. From time to time rumors circulate about the discovery of parts of the manuscript or about their location. However, these rumors have proven false. Nevertheless, two parts of the Aleppo Codex have been discovered over the years: a whole page and a fragment of a page.

The Aleppo Codex reached Israel nearly fifty years ago (in 1958). Over the years, many efforts have been made to locate the missing parts of the codex. From time to time rumors circulate about the discovery of parts of the manuscript or about their location. However, these rumors have proven false. Nevertheless, two parts of the Aleppo Codex have been discovered over the years: a whole page and a fragment of a page.

We continue with a final post from a chapter from Dan Jacobsen’s The Story of Stories where he explores the Scriptures to find how the Jews and the Jewish state became the chosen people. Although Mr. Jacobsen is not a believing Jew, his approach is quite readable (I think) for Christian or Jewish “cultic” believers (as he labels those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid). Roger Scruton quoted him at one point and I took that as a recommendation.

As a Jew, Dan Jacobson has long been aware of the notion of a ‘people chosen by God’. In The Story of the Stories, he uses his Jewishness as a premise to discuss the contradictions of being thought of as ‘special’ – its opportunities and its deadly temptations. The result is a deeply profound and serious meditation that sheds an entirely new light on Biblical scholarship and orthodox theology. On first publication (1982), The Story of the Stories was hailed as a seminal work.

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An anthropologist may declare, as Edmund Leach does in Genesis as Myth and Other Essays, that the reason for the  choice  is  essentially  that  this  line  is  the  “purest”  in blood, since Sarah, Isaac’s mother, is Abraham’s half-sister, which  the  mother  of  Ishmael  is not;  but  from  our  point of view that merely puts the question back a stage further. We still have  to ask: Why this line?

The “purity” of  the line from Abraham  and his family matters,  after all, only because he has already been chosen. As for Jacob and Esau, who are not merely born of the same mother but are twins, the  one  is  preferred  above  the  other  when  they  are  still in the womb: “the elder shall serve the younger.” (A reversal of  the  primogenitive  order  is found  in many  biblical narratives;  the case of  David, which is mentioned  below, is one of the most striking of these.)

It cannot be said that the patriarchs are chosen for their special virtues; if anything, the case is exactly the other way around: whatever virtues are ascribed to them appear to spring from the fact that they have been specially favored or elected — and that they know it. 

Now, one might argue — as Thomas Mann does in Joseph and His Brothers, a series of ironic, avowedly fictional variations upon the legends of Genesis — that in this respect Yahweh’s actions are very much like those of life itself , which also “chooses” with apparent capriciousness those people whom it blesses (and curses) with gifts of any kind, and, which invariably lets them know that they have been so chosen. (In 1 Samuel 16, to take an example from much later in the story, David is described as a handsome youth, with particularly beautiful eyes; but the “Spirit of the Lord”  comes “mightily upon him” only after Samuel has anointed him as the king-to-be: in other words, once he knows that he has been chosen.)

Alternatively, it could simply be said that the biblical story, like any myth about the genesis of any people, has to begin somewhere, and with someone: why· not with Abraham, in Ur of the Chaldees? Both these arguments are persuasive enough, and they are not incompatible with one another. 

But  they  are incompatible  with the claims that the Scriptures themselves make on Yahweh’s behalf: above all, with the design that is insistently imputed to him, from the beginning to the end of the biblical text. He is the active or (if you like) supremely responsible participant in the story of the patriarchs and of the people descended from them; he is the sole and exclusive source of moral order acknowledged in the book. Yet no explanation is given of his most crucial decision; no moral or any other justification is proffered of the most fateful of the choices he makes. At the same time, the book itself makes it clear that to enter into the realm of choices is to enter irrevocably into the realm of  morality.

“The Lord sees not as man sees.” In some of the biographical narratives, there is a hint that the favored of God might be those who are scorned or overlooked by others. “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (Genesis 29:31). Even David falls into this category; no one thinks to send for him, the youngest son of Jesse, when Samuel comes to the house in search of Saul’s successor to the throne. A preference by Yahweh for the downtrodden is more than hinted at in the account of the liberation  of  the  entire people  from  their  bondage in Egypt; while in the codes of law and conduct that are promulgated in Yahweh’s name in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy,  the  weakest  members  of  society-the  poor,the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner or stranger­ — are spoken of with great moral generosity, even with tenderness, as being under his special guardianship. (“Love the sojourner, therefore, for  you  were  sojourners  in  the  land of Egypt.” Another form of reciprocity, that must be called.)

Eventually, in  a development already alluded to in discussing the fall of Jerusalem, the prophets who faced the catastrophes of national defeat and exile, and all the hardships of their own calling, were more and more to insist programmatically that God’s final election must fall upon the humiliated and the outcast. Yet in developing  out of  their  owntragic situation this systematization or moralization of the way in which Yahweh makes his choices, the prophets, inevitably enough invoked as precedent his (belated) recollection of  his promises  to the patriarchs during an earlier period  of  exile and servitude. And that brings us back, as they intended  it to, to the mystery  of  his initial  choice.

It is not surprising that later rabbinical commentators were also to attempt to rationalize the initial choice of Abraham and  (some of )  his descendants by inventing  a series of  what might  be  called  justificatory  legends about  it. It was said, for instance, that Yahweh  had offered the yoke of  his  Law  to  all  the  nations  of  the  earth  in turn;  only Israel had been willing to accept  it. It was also said that even  as a boy Abraham  had  distinguished  himself  by his contempt for idolatry, and by breaking the idols of his father. There is no warrant in the text itself  for these stories; in fact,  what  they  betray  is a  certain  unease  about  there being no warrant  for them. 

A  rather   more  sophisticated,   theological   justification for  the  apparent   arbitrariness — or   “scandal” — of   Yahweh’s  · choice of the people of Israel has been urged with particular insistence by some Christian interpreters: Paul, the ex-Jew, being the very first among them (Romans 9:10-11).  As I understand it, the argument goes that if we were to be given a reason for the choice, then the quality of grace it shows would inevitably be diminished or devalued; indeed, to seek for a reason is to attempt to do away with the very notion of God exercising his completely unconstrained will in the matter, which is the only true meaning the word “choice” should have. 

This is ingenious, and in some ways it actually seems to me closer to what we find in the text than are the rabbinical stories just cited; at least it confronts the fact that we are dealing with an act of unexplained and dangerous favoritism — and one that was at a profound level recognized as such by the biblical writers themselves.

 

The freedom which Yahweh enjoys is in any case constrained in one most important respect: the one thing he is  not free to  do  is  to refrain  from  choosing.  At  a  time when there are only four people on the entire earn — Adam, Eve, and their two sons — Yahweh is already engaged in the practice.

And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” The conse­quences of this, supposedly God’s very first act of favoritism, are at once shown to be disastrous for both brothers. First it produces envy, then murder, then a man forever on the run. But does Yahweh learn from this experience? Not at all! 

Once he has begun in this way, he apparently cannot stop. “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious,” he says, with more grimness than grace in Exodus 33:19-20, “and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (The passage is quoted in the Pauline Letter mentioned above.) Everything that follows can be understood as an illustration or elaboration of this ambiguous utterance.

Whole peoples are chosen and rejected; the land is chosen and later, in a  sense, rejected; so are particular groups and tribes within Israel itself; so are particular places within the land. The record of these events obviously reflects in each case some greater or lesser vicissitude in the history of the nation or in the history of the cult; but it also reveals just how “natural” to the  Israelites’ conceptions of God was the act of choosing and rejecting, in so many different contexts. 

This activity is strongly associated, especially in Leviticus, with that ritualistic preoccupation  with “holiness” and  “separation” with  “cleanness”  and  “uncleanness,”  in  terms of  which everything,  from the fish in the sea to the days of the calendar, was ultimately to be categorized. That preoccupation, I need hardly add, still looms large in rabbinic Judaism. “I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean beast  and the unclean”  (Leviticus 20:24-25).

 What makes this God such an inveterate or compulsive chooser? What is it about the act of  choosing that reveals his very nature?  The answer I am going to suggest shows clearly that in the creation of  our fantasies,  and hence in the  development  of  our  moral  lives,  “weaknesses”  and “strengths” are as inextricably bound  up with one another as are “good” impulses and “bad.” Yahweh comes into being as a choosing  God because,  unlike  the gods· of  Egypt  or Assyria, say, or even those of Canaan, he is not autochthonous; that is, he is a God of a people whose primal historical memory appears to be one of enslavement and homelessness, of searching for a territory, of being without that which all other peoples apparently had. Like the people , he is a wanderer, a God looking for a land — therefore he has to “choose” the land from outside it, just as he had to originally to choose or form the people itself.

For  ask  now  of  the  days that  are past,  which  were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of . . . . Or has any god ever at­ tempted to go and take a nation for himself  from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and  by  war,  by  a  mighty  hand  and  an outstretched arm,  and  by  great  terrors,  according  to  all  that  the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?
DEUTERONOMY 4:32, 34

In other words, if it had not been said of Yahweh that he had created heaven and earth, if he had not been given “extraterritorial” status from the very outset, he would not have been able to dispose of a land that was not “his ” and deal so effectively with the Egyptians, or choose as his own a nation which was still to become a nation.

Thus you shall say to  the  house  of  Jacob,  and  tell the people of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, be my own kingdom of priests and a holy   nation.
EXODUS 19:3-6

And if this was true for the Israelites when they began to keep the record of his deeds, during their time of national independence, it had to be no less true for the prophets when they contemplated the destruction of Jerusalem, the burning of his Temple, and the renewed enslavement of his people.

Out of the people’s weakness had come his power, including his power to choose; the wider the scope of that power was seen to be, the greater was he glory of those upon whom his choice had fallen — and also the more exposed and vulnerable they felt their position to be. Yahweh had been free to choose Israel, or not, as he wished. Israel, it seemed had no choice but to be chosen.

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The  Choice 2 — Dan Jocobsen

July 15, 2014
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram and lo  a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram 'Know  of  a surety  that  your  descendants  will be sojourners  in land that is not  theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation  which  they serve, and afterward  they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.’ Genesis  15:12-15

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram and lo a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram ‘Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.’ Genesis 15:12-15

We continue with a second post from a chapter from Dan Jacobsen’s The Story of Stories where he explores the Scriptures to find how the Jews and the Jewish state became the chosen people. Although Mr. Jacobsen is not a believing Jew, his approach is quite readable (I think) for Christian or Jewish “cultic” believers (as he labels those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid). Roger Scruton quoted him at one point and I took that as a recommendation.

As a Jew, Dan Jacobson has long been aware of the notion of a ‘people chosen by God’. In The Story of the Stories, he uses his Jewishness as a premise to discuss the contradictions of being thought of as ‘special’ – its opportunities and its deadly temptations. The result is a deeply profound and serious meditation that sheds an entirely new light on Biblical scholarship and orthodox theology. On first publication (2001), The Story of the Stories was hailed as a seminal work.

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Where the biblical writers differ from the rest of us (as Spinoza himself  puts it in another context) is in their “unusually  vivid  imaginations.”  They revealed  their imaginative power,  I would  argue,  quite as much  in  the running account they give us of the relations between God and his chosen people as in the individual visions and tales which the larger narrative  contains.

Like every highly  developed work of the imagination, the biblical “story of the stories” has the effect of showing us just  how inextricably inter­twined,  in  the  depths  of  the psyche,  are  the  connections’ between our benevolent  and malevolent impulses, between childishness  and  maturity,  between  envy  and  generosity. As dramatists or storytellers  (though not as philosophers), the biblical  writers  knew  more about  themselves  and  the rest of us than Spinoza gave them credit for; they certainly knew more than he did about the perils as well as the advantages of the special relationship they claimed to have with their God.

Thus, while exulting over Yahweh’s choice, and rejoicing in the discomfiture of their enemies, who had been passed over and rejected, the composers of the biblical story could never lose sight of the terrifying possibility that  it might be their turn next to join the ranks of the rejected.  That was the danger to which they had exposed themselves imaginatively in evoking a God who exercised  choices of  such a fateful kind; that was the price they had  to pay for the favor he had bestowed upon them. 

The constant presence of the possibility of such a rejection is one of the wonders of the entire tale. Sooner or later  it is bound  to  happen, the story implicitly tells us, to those who seek preferment or special terms from the world all men are compelled to live in. Which is not to say, the story also tells  us,  that they will ever desist from seeking such preferment, and trying their hardest to get away with it unscathed. The explicit moral is that the people of Israel fall into God’s disfavor only when they disobey him; the tacit  moral  is that the very notion  of  having  been  chosen  by  such  a God  will produce the retribution appropriate  to it. It  is, I suspect, because the former moral is urged upon us with such exhaustive vehemence that the latter has been virtually overlooked.

Anyway, if one returns to the opening question, and rephrases it to  ask why, in the estimation of the Israelites themselves, Yahweh had chosen them to be his special possession: among the nations, one sees that it calls for answers of two different kinds. Firstly, it can be answered in terms of the religious  and  historical  purposes  God is supposed to have had in mind in making such a choice. Secondly, one can try to explain why  this  particular  people  rather than some other was chosen to fulfill those special purposes. 

Now, while the Scriptures have a great  deal to say about the first kind of explanation — that is, about Yahweh’s intentions for his chosen — they tell us practically nothing, explicitly at least, about his reasons for making this choice “from all other people that are upon the face of the earth” (Exodus 33: 15). This is not because the writers took Yahweh’s choice wholly for granted, or assumed that the reasons for it would be self-evident. Far from it. Indeed, the sense of being forever on trial, which is one of the consequences of the apparent arbitrariness of the claim to have been specially chosen, is a constant in Israelite and Jewish history.

The  formal  explanations  as  to  why  the  choice  fell  on the Israelites rather than on some other people always refer back to previous commitments by Yahweh — which are themselves then left entirely unexplained. In Exodus we are told that God intends to redeem the people from slavery in Egypt because he has “remembered” the covenant he made with the patriarchs;  in Deuteronomy  this is forcefully repeated several times.

In Deuteronomy also the Israelites are explicitly told that it was not because of their “righteousness” or “uprightness” that they were chosen by Yahweh, or because they were more powerful or many in number, in Exodus God actually makes the suggestion to Moses (a suggestion that is recalled in Numbers 14 and Deuteronomy 9) that he should simply abandon or destroy the Israelites in the desert. Then he and Moses might begin all over again with another, less contumacious people, who would be more obedient to the Law and hence truly deserving of the promised land.

The intention of all these rebukes and warnings is obviously to make the people of Israel feel thoroughly humble about the favor that Yahweh haas done them. The effect however, is to make his choice seem more random and hence more unfathomable and more alarming than ever. 

This impression can only be strengthened when we turn to the promises in Genesis which are so insistently referred to as the ultimate source of all Yahweh’s commitments to the children of Israel.

[For  reasons  already  given, the argument  is not  really affected  by  the fact that some or even all of these promises may have been retrospectively written into earlier legends which were originally told without them are explicitly told that it was not because of their "righteous­ ness"  or  "uprightness"  that  they  were  chosen  by  Yahweh, or because they were powerful or many in number; in Exo­dus God actually makes the suggestion to Moses (a sugges­ tion which is elaborately recalled in Numbers 14 and Deu­ teronomy 9) that he should simply abandon or destroy tlie Israelites  in  the  desert.  Then  he  and  Moses  might  begin all over again with another, less contumacious people, who would be more obedient to the Law and hence truly deserving of the promised land.

The intention of all these rebukes and warnings is obviously to make the people of Israel feel thoroughly humble about  the favor  that  Yahweh  has  done them. The  eff ect, however, is to make his choice seem more random and hence into earlier legends which  were originally without  them. To say of  something which appears in an otherwise  "early" text that it is a relatively late interpolation does not disqualify it from being treated, in my terms, as an integral  part  of the story. Exactly the opposite is true.  Such  "backing and  filling,"  of  which there is clearly a great deal, shows how keenly the writers and editors of the text felt the need to harmonize the tales they already had, from whatever sources they came, with any additional material they wished  to  incorporate  into  the story. In other words, they tried, at least intermittently, to view the text  as a whole, and wanted it to be viewed as a whole.

A particularly  obvious,  and in my opinion particularly  moving, example of the use made by the writers of the opportunities given to them for a retrospective enlargement and self-endorsement of the legends of the patriarchs is to be found in Genesis  15:12-15, which  "looks forward" vividly  to what is already known in terms of the myth, to have taken place:

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram and lo  a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram 'Know  of  a surety  that  your  descendants  will be sojourners  in land that is not  theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation  which  they serve, and afterward  they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.]

Why does God declare to Abraham that he should go from his country and his kindred  and his father’s house to the land that would be shown to him where he would become “a great nation”? We are not told. Why, among Abraham’s sons, does God choose Isaac to be the one with whom he will establish an “everlasting covenant,” while proffering to Ishmael the consolation of fathering another, uncovenanted nation? We are not told. 

Why is Jacob preferred above his brother Esau; or to put the story in another way, why is Jacob allowed to cheat Esau out of his father’s blessing, so that the divine prophecy made to Rebecca (“two people born of you shall be divided the one shall be stronger than the other”) might be fulfilled in Jacob’s favor? Again, we are not told. Abraham and one particular line descending from him are chosen: that is all. 

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The  Choice 1 — Dan Jocobsen

July 14, 2014
Shasu is an Egyptian word for semitic-speaking pastoral cattle nomads who lived in the Levant from what was known, to human history, as the late 'Bronze Age' to the 'Early Iron Age' or 'Third Intermediate Period' of Egyptian history. These peoples of the Demiourgós were organized in clans, under tribal chieftaisn, and were described by those around them as lawless brigands, active from the Jezreel Valley to Ashkelon and the Sinai. The name evolved from a transliteration of the Egyptian word shasu, meaning "those who move on foot", into the term for Bedouin-type wanderers. The term first originated in an ancient list of peoples in Transjordan. It is used in a list of enemies of Egypt inscribed on column bases at the temple of Soleb built by the Pharoah Amenhotep III. Copied later by either Pharaoh Seti I and Pharaoh Ramesses II at Amarah-West, the list mentions six groups of Shashu: the Shasu of S'rr, the Shasu of Lbn, the Shasu of Sm't, the Shasu of Wrbr, the Shasu of Yhw (Yahweh), and the Shasu of Pysps.

Shasu is an Egyptian word for semitic-speaking pastoral cattle nomads who lived in the Levant from what was known, to human history, as the late ‘Bronze Age’ to the ‘Early Iron Age’ or ‘Third Intermediate Period’ of Egyptian history.
These peoples of the Demiourgós were organized in clans, under tribal chieftaisn, and were described by those around them as lawless brigands, active from the Jezreel Valley to Ashkelon and the Sinai.
The name evolved from a transliteration of the Egyptian word shasu, meaning “those who move on foot”, into the term for Bedouin-type wanderers.
The term first originated in an ancient list of peoples in Transjordan.
It is used in a list of enemies of Egypt inscribed on column bases at the temple of Soleb built by the Pharoah Amenhotep III.
Copied later by either Pharaoh Seti I and Pharaoh Ramesses II at Amarah-West, the list mentions six groups of Shashu: the Shasu of S’rr, the Shasu of Lbn, the Shasu of Sm’t, the Shasu of Wrbr, the Shasu of Yhw (Yahweh), and the Shasu of Pysps.

A chapter from Dan Jacobsen’s The Story of Stories  where he explores the Scriptures to find how the Jews and the Jewish state became the chosen people. Although Mr. Jacobsen is not a believing Jew, his approach is quite readable (I think) for Christian or Jewish “cultic” believers (as he labels those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid). Roger Scruton quoted him at one point and I took that as a recommendation.

As a Jew, Dan Jacobson has long been aware of the notion of a ‘people chosen by God’. In The Story of the Stories, he uses his Jewishness as a premise to discuss the contradictions of being thought of as ‘special’ – its opportunities and its deadly temptations. The result is a deeply profound and serious meditation that sheds an entirely new light on Biblical scholarship and orthodox theology. On first publication (1982), The Story of the Stories was hailed as a seminal work.

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Continuing  to work  backward,  as it were,  we  come to a question which is logically anterior to the issues raised by the  Israelites’  conquest  of  Canaan;  indeed,  it  is  anterior to almost  everything  in  the  Scriptures. Why  did Yahweh choose  the  children  of  Israel  to be  “his own  possession among the peoples”?

The short answer to this question is that he chose them because they wanted to believe that they had been chosen. . They invented him, one can say, so that they might be chosen. They wanted to be exalted above other nations­ — “high above . . . in praise and in fame and in honor”  (Deuteronomy 26:19) — and they ascribed precisely that ambition on their behalf to the most exalted being it was possible for them to conceive. From their belief in the intentions he nourished on their behalf , they derived a sense of inner strength and cohesion which they could not have got from any other source: a conviction of their own superiority over all the nations who had not been  chosen.

All that, in terms of the general argument, may seem obvious enough. Motives and sentiments of the kind just described emerge clearly from the famous hymn of praise to Yahweh in Exodus, which celebrates not only the destruction of the Egyptian army that had been pursuing the fleeing Israelites, but also the forthcoming destruction of their ene­mies-to-be in the land of Canaan.

Who is like thee, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like thee, majestic in holiness,
terrible in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
Thou  didst  stretch out thy right  hand,
the earth swallowed  them.
Thou hast led in thy steadfast love the people whom
thou  hast  redeemed,
thou hast guided them by thy strength to thy holy abode.
The peoples have heard, they tremble;
pangs have seized on the inhabitants of Phifistia.
Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed;
the leaders of Moab, trembling seizes them;
all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the
greatness of thy arm, they are as still as a stone,
till thy people, O Lord, pass by,
till the people pass by whom thou hast purchased.
Thou wilt bring them in, and plant them on thy own mountain,
the place, O Lord, which thou hast made for thy abode,
the sanctuary, O Lord, which thy hands have estab­lished.
EXODUS 15:11-17

The claim to the territory made in that hymn has two aspects, one of them more encouraging to the Israelites than the other. On the one hand,  it says that their title to the land resides in the fact that it has been given  to them by a being supreme even “among the gods”; no one can have prior or more important rights to it than themselves, because no one has authority over God; certainly not the land’s original inhabitants and its neighbors, who are mentioned one by  one  merely  in  order  to  be  disposed  of.  (For  the time being,  at  least.)  

Furthermore,  God  is  expressly  said to have chosen the land  not  only for  the Israelites but  also for himself : it is his own mountain,  his  abode,  and  the place where he has established his sanctuary. 

On  the  other hand, the very fact that he is praised and thanked for giving the land to the people, and  that  praising  and  thanking  him for this reason is to be a central feature of his cult, [The words "cult" and "cultic" are used throughout in their  traditional sense: "in reference to external rites and ceremonies" (Shorter Oxford English Diction­ary). That is, the words relate specifically and directly to the  formal,  public modes of worship adopted by the community of believers.] once they have been brought in and his sanctuary has been established, serve as a constant reminder to them that their possession for a certain strip of territory is not and never has been something “natural,” or self-evident, or to be taken for granted. 

It is the result of a special intervention on their behalf by God into the processes of history; by its very nature such an intervention can  be undone or can  take  a  different  form on another occasion, should the need arise. One such occasion  when he intervened to the harm of the Israelites, has already been looked at. So have some of the consequences of the self-consciousness which the Israelites had about their relationship to the territory they inhabited. Others still wait to be examined.

In any event, we have moved almost imperceptibly from discussing the apparently unlimited power of an unlimited divinity to something much  more  modest  in  scope.  After all, what has  the  power  ascribed  to Yahweh  in  that  paean of praise from Exodus actually produced? What has he delivered? A measured answer is to be found in Spinoza’s A Theologico-Political  Treatise:

Next I inquired, why the Hebrews were called God’s chosen peo­ple, and discover[ed]  that it was only because  God has chosen them for a certain strip of territory, where they might live peaceably and at ease.I learnt that the Law revealed by God to Moses was merely the law of the independent Hebrew state.

Their choice and vocation consisted only in temporary happiness and the advantages of independent rule…In the law no other reward is offered for obedience other than the continual happiness of an independent commonwealth and other goods of this life.

Spinoza comes to this conclusion only after considering and recoiling form another possibility, the very notion of chosenness with which I opened this post.

Every man’s true  happiness  and  blessedness  consist  solely  in the  enjoyment  of  what  is  good,  not  in  the  pride  that  he  alone is enjoying it, to  the exclusion of  others. He who  thinks himself the more blessed because  he  is  enjoying  benefits  which  others are not, or  because  he  is  more  blessed  or  more  fortunate  than his fellows, is  ignorant  of  true  happiness  and  blessedness  and the joy which he feels is  either  childish  or  envious  and malicious.   For   instance,   a   man’s   true   happiness   consists   only in wisdom, and the knowledge  of  the  truth,  not  at  all  in  the fact that he  is wiser than others,  or  that  others  lack  such knowledge.

When Scripture, therefore, in exhorting the Hebrews  to obey the law, says that the Lord has chosen them for Himself before other nations (Deuteronomy  10:15); that  He is near  them but not near others (Deuteronomy 4:7); that to them alone He has given just laws (Deuteronomy 4:8); and lastly, that He has marked them out before others (Deuteronomy 4:32); it speaks only according to the understanding  of its hearers, who…knew not true  blessedness.  For  in good  sooth they  would  have  been  no less blessed if God had called all men equally to salvation, nor would God have been less present to them for being equally present to others; their laws would  have  been  no  less  just  if they had been ordained for all, and they themselves would have been no less wise.

What Spinoza has done here is simply to exclude from serious consideration those passages in the biblical text which offend him. That is the effect  of  his  saying  that such passages were put there merely to appeal to “the under­ standing of its hearers.” The only evidence he can produce for this remark his own humane but unfalteringly rational estimation of where and how “true happiness and blessed­ness” are to be found.

The fact is, however, that the verses he cites from Deuteronomy speak of Israel’s special privileges before Yahweh with exactly the same degree of sincerity  and  fervor  as  they  do  of  everything  else  they  touch upon; and we can safely assume that those who composed them  were as liberally  endowed  with  the particular  kinds of childishness, enviousness, and malice which Spinoza deplores as their “hearers” were. Or as we are today.

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The Most Abandoned Soul by Anthony Esolen

July 11, 2014
Christ of the Abyss at San Fruttuoso, Italy is a submerged bronze statue of Jesus Christ, the original of which is located in the Mediterranean Sea off San Fruttuoso between Camogli and Portofino on the Italian Riviera.

Christ of the Abyss at San Fruttuoso, Italy is a submerged bronze statue of Jesus Christ, the original of which is located in the Mediterranean Sea off San Fruttuoso between Camogli and Portofino on the Italian Riviera.

The following was recently selected the 2014 Awards Best Essay Prayer and Spirituality First Place by the Catholic Press Association. Anthony Esolen is professor of English at Providence College, a senior editor of Touchstone Magazine, and a regular contributor to Magnificat. He is the translator and editor of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House) and author of The Beauty of the Word: A running Commentary on the Roman Missal (Magnificat). Reblogged from Magnificat.

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Which among you, asks Jesus, having one lost sheep from a hundred, will not leave the ninety- nine and seek for the one in the wilderness?

That saying has always struck me as strange, as convicting us of hardheartedness. For the fact is, many of us would leave that hundredth sheep to die. I confess that I would. It’s only a sheep, after all. Better tend to the ninety-nine, and take some much-needed rest.

These things will happen. The man has divorced his wife for another woman, and now, having abandoned her in turn, is drinking his life away in a bar. Well, we may pray for him from a distance, if we remember. But the rest of his family is all right, the ninety-nine of them, and we can take comfort in that. One sheep is only one, and is much like another anyhow.

The Souls of Purgatory
That is not Jesus’ way. Even if there had been but one sinner to redeem, he would have shed his blood for that one, and suffered the agony to the end. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of each world of sin: of each lost sheep in the wilderness. We calculate advantages to ourselves; calculating sheep are we. But there is no calibration in the love that Jesus gives. It is full measure, shaken together and spilling over. It is life, and that in abundance.

Sometimes, when the grace of God pierces our self-satisfied hearts, we feel an impulse of that all-forsaking love. The impulse may be slight enough, but it is precious. One night, during a dark time in my life, I was driving home past a large maximum security prison, ringed with fences and barbed wire. And the thought came to me that there was someone there whom no one outside cared for, whom no one visited, whom the other prisoners shunned and the guards did not like.

Whoever he was, I prayed for him then, because the loneliness weighed upon me like a mountain. But the self-satisfaction returns: “Look here, I’ve managed to round up at least eighty or so, these stupid and shaggy creatures,” never considering my own stupidity, my fleece tangled with filth and dank with the scent of the wolves from whose jaws I was snatched, and whose presence I hardly suspected. Then it might behoove us to remember the souls who have been saved, who are aware of the pain and loss that might have swallowed them up for ever, and who are assisted by our prayers: the souls in purgatory.

Prayer for the Holy Souls
Here, then, is a beautiful prayer for those members of the Church Suffering:

O Lord God almighty, I pray thee by the Precious Blood which thy divine Son Jesus shed in the garden, deliver the souls in purgatory, and especially that soul among them all which is most destitute of spiritual aid; and vouchsafe to bring it to thy glory, there to praise and bless thee for ever. Amen.

The most abandoned soul in purgatory: most forgotten by the living, most alone, most poor in merits, farthest from the sight of God.

The prayer reminds us of that terrible hour in the garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus prayed and sweat drops of blood, while his three chosen friends, Peter, James, and John—even the beloved John — abandoned their Lord and fell asleep. Jesus in his humanity knew no comfort from those friends. He was one with the Father, and the Father’s will was that he should bear upon his shoulders, stretched in agony upon the bitter cross, all the accumulated sins of mankind.

An angel was with him, messenger of God; and we may well think of the angel on that first Passover centuries before, who slew the first born of Egypt to set the children of Israel free. This time the victim will be Jesus, Only Begotten Son of the Father: God himself, suffering to unleash the sacraments of love and eternal life.

One With the Most Abandoned
When we think of the aloneness of Jesus, it is impossible to say of a fellow sinner, “Well, he has driven everyone away, and now suffers what he deserves.” We are not permitted to speak in that fashion. It may be that in the sinner’s destitution he is drawing close to the heart of Jesus, whose hand even now may be resting upon that lost sheep’s shoulder. Likewise, that least of souls in purgatory enjoys an incomparable gift which we do not yet enjoy. He, despite his suffering, and also in and through his suffering, is already among the saved, and God’s grace protects him from committing a single sin, while we can hardly endure a day without indulging our pride, or falling back into sloth and cowardice. Sheep indeed.

But to pray for the souls in purgatory is like playing a prelude which begins in darkness and moves always toward light and joy. Consider now this companion to the previous prayer:

O Lord God almighty, I pray thee by the Precious Blood  which thy divine Son Jesus shed in his cruel scourging, deliver the souls in purgatory, and that soul especially among them all which is nearest to its entrance into thy glory: that so it may forthwith begin to praise and bless thee forever. Amen.

It is a wonderful thing to know that the most abandoned among us, through the blood of Christ, will stand at the doorway to paradise, no less than the greatest of saints will have done before.

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Quantum Physics: The Multiverse of Parmenides 2 — Heinrich Pas

July 10, 2014
The bizarre properties of quantum physics naturally inspired the fantasies of both journalists and authors. The parallel existence of different realities in quantum physics, for example, became the subject of a Physics World cover in 1998, which depicts a couple on the phone arguing as follows: "Oh Alice . . . you're the one for me"-"But Bob . . . in a quantum world . . . How can we be sure?" Man’s best friends: A doggie selfie. Where does it all end?

The bizarre properties of quantum physics naturally inspired the fantasies of both journalists and authors. The parallel existence of different realities in quantum physics, for example, became the subject of a Physics World cover in 1998, which depicts a couple on the phone arguing as follows: “Oh Alice . . . you’re the one for me”-“But Bob . . . in a quantum world . . . How can we be sure?” Man’s best friends: A doggie selfie. Where does it all end?

Bohr summarized the apparent paradox of particles and waves under the concept of complementarity. After a guest lecture he gave at Moscow University, he left the following aphorism on the blackboard where famous visitors were sup­ posed to leave comments: Contraria non contradictoria sed complementa sunt (Opposites do not contradict but rather complement each other).

But back to Heisenberg, Plato, and the ancient Greeks: As the American philosopher of science Thomas S. Kuhn realized, science in times of scientific revolutions is particularly vulnerable to nonscientific influences. When changes to the scientific paradigm cause a shift in the generally accepted problems and solutions and thus also in the general perception and scientific world view, rational reasons like conformity with facts, consistency, scope, simplicity, and usefulness are not sufficient to understand the evolution of a new theory.

During these times, personal factors such as cultural back­ ground can also play a decisive role. And Heisenberg’s background was almost as Greek as it was German: As the son of a professor of Greek language, he became accustomed to Greek philosophy and culture and their reception in early twentieth-century Germany long before he himself learned Latin and ancient Greek in school. His biographer Armin Hermann suggests that the encounter with Plato’s philosophy influenced Heisenberg more than anything else. And not long after Heisenberg studied, climbed, and calculated in Helgoland, Paul Dirac in Cambridge and Erwin Schrodinger in Vienna worked out different but mathematically equivalent versions of quantum physics.

Since the standard interpretation of these works was developed basically in the inner circle around Bohr and Heisenberg, Heisenberg’s background seems particularly relevant for its appreciation. Also, Schrodinger made statements such as “Almost our entire intellectual heritage is of Greek origin” and “science can be correctly characterized as re­flecting on the Universe in a Greek way.”And Dirac left on the blackboard in Moscow, right next to Bohr’s principle of com­plementarity, only the laconic remark, “A physical law has to have mathematical beauty,” a statement that reminds us strongly of Goethe’s transfiguration of the classical worldview:

Nature and art, they seem each other to repel
Yet,
they fly together before one is aware;
The
antagonism has departed me as well,
And
now both of these seem to me equally fair.

And sure enough, quantum physics seems to be a Greek theory after all. This becomes evident when reading the thoughts in the book Die Einheit der Natur (The Unity of Na­ture) by Heisenberg’s student and friend, Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker, the brother of the subsequent German president, on the centerpiece of quantum physics — the wave-particle duality — and how it can be traced back to the arguments in Plato’s dialogue Parmenides.

Parmenides of Elea (Fig. 3.3) was a Greek philosopher in the pre-Socratic era around the fifth century BCE. Of his writing only the fragment of a philosophical poem remains; it deals with the unity of all being. It describes how an unnamed goddess-often understood as Persephone- invites the poet to perceive the truthful being-again a likely reference to the mystical experience in the mystery cults of Eleusis. 

The truth­ful being then is distinguished from mere appearances and described as the all-embracing One — uncreated and indestructible, alone, complete, immovable, and without an end — reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s stage of egolessness. One is the All is correspondingly the central statement followed up by Weizsacker  when he discusses the argument between Socrates and Parmenides chronicled by Plato, which, according to the Italian author Luciano De Crescenzo, was the “most boring and complicated discussion in the entire history of philosophy.” 

In this battle of words, which supposedly took place on the occasion of a visit of Parmenides to Athens, Socrates tried to refute the identity of One and All. To this end Socrates argued that One is not Many and thus has no parts. On the other hand All refers to something which does not miss any of its parts. Consequently the One would consist of parts if it were All, and thus finally One cannot be the All. 

At this point Weizsacker comes to Parmenides’s defense by stressing the connection with quantum mechanics. And it is really astounding how the quantum mechanical interpretation of the One suddenly bestows this incomprehensible debate with lucidity and meaning. After all, in quantum mechanics the All is the wave function and, in its fullest manifestation, the all-embracing wave function of the universe. 

Moreover, in quantum mechanics the analysis of the individual parts of an object without destroying the object is impossible, since the measurement, as explained above, affects the object and thus distorts the unity of its parts. And of all possible states an object can assume, only an infinitesimally small fraction are states in which the parts of the object actually correspond to a clearly defined outcome of a measurement. Only in these states can one truthfully assign reality or existence to these parts.

For example, only two among the infinitely many possible states that Schrodinger’s cat can assume (such as 90 percent alive and 10 percent dead or 27.3 percent alive and 72.7 percent dead) — namely totally dead or totally alive-correspond to possible outcomes in a measurement. But quantum mechanically, a pair of two cats, half of them dead and the other half alive, is realizable not only with one living and one dead but also with two half-dead cats or one being 70 percent alive and one being 30 percent alive.

Consequently, in quantum physics the All is really more than its parts, the partial objects actually constituting through their association a new entity, or, just as postulated by Parmenides, a new unity, a new One. 

Now Parmenides, according to Plato, required further that the One possesses no properties: It has ho beginning, no center and no end, no shape and no location; it is neither in itself nor in anything else; it is neither at rest nor is it moving. Weizsacker can argue that a quantum mechanical object fulfills these requirements perfectly.

After all, a determination of any of these properties relies on a measurement, which implies a collapse of the wave function and thus destroys the unity of the collective object. On the other hand, isolation of the object from the surrounding universe is impossible: The object would not exist in the universe if it were not connected to the universe via some kind of interaction. 

Thus, strictly speaking, only the universe as a whole can constitute a real quantum mechanical object. 

Then, however, nobody would remain who could observe it from outside. Next Weizsacker and Parmenides follow the discussion back­ward: how the One — meaning the all-embracing universe barring all properties — unfurls into the colorful and multifaceted appearances of our everyday life. The argument relies here on the quirky assumption that the One, in the instant where it “is” — in the sense of exists — is already two things. It is the One and it is the Is. This argument can be iterated. Again both the One and the Is are two things: the Is is and is the One, and the One is and is the One. By repetition of this consideration the One acquires an infinite multiplicity: The being One unfolds itself into the universe. And again Weizsacker clarifies the discourse by referring to the quantum mechanical object.

After all, the way an object can exist is via interaction with other objects, which again results in the collapse of the wave function and the loss of quantum mechanical unity: In order to establish that an object exists, the object has to be measured and thus is affected in a way that implies that it is no longer one object according to the meaning of Par­menides’s One. In summary, Weizsacker arrives at an amazing conclusion, that the notion of complementarity has its source in ancient Greece: “We find . . . the foundation of complemen­tarity already foretold in Plato’s Parmenides.” We actually can recover the feel of what the ancient Greeks experienced in their mystery cults in modern twentieth-century physics! 

But this is not the end of the story: The atomism of Democritus, the idea that, the world is not continuously divisible but made out of indivisible particles, makes sense only in the context of quantum mechanics, where matter consists of compound objects that correspond to standing waves and thus can absorb or emit energy only in indivisible portions­ the quanta. 

Also, the idea of tracing the laws of nature back to fundamental symmetries, as proposed in Plato’s Timaeus is an integral part of contemporary particle physics. Finally, consider Einstein’s objection to the fundamental importance of probabilities. Because of that objection, he remained a lifelong opponent of quantum mechanics: God doesn’t play dice with the world. This statement appears as a direct response to the 2,500-year-old fragment of Heraclitus: “Eternity is a child moving counters in a game; the kingly power is a child’s.”

How can one really comprehend the lack of causality inherent in quantum physics and in particular the role of the puzzling quantum collapse, which are not described by the mathematical formalism and remain controversial today? The most modern and consistent interpretation of these puzzling phenomena seems to be at the same time the craziest one: Every­ thing that can happen does happen-albeit in different parallel universes. 

This idea was formulated for the first time in 1957 by Hugh Everett III while he was working on his doctoral dissertation at Princeton University. With the bizarre concept of parallel universes he asked too much of his contemporary physicists, even though Everett — like Richard Feynman, a founder of quantum electrodynamics, and Kip Thorne, the father of the wormhole time machine — was a student of the eminent John Archibald Wheeler, who was himself a rather unorthodox and creative associate of Einstein and who, among many other achievements coined the term black hole for the timeless star corpses in the universe.

But even with this first­ class mentor, Everett’s colleagues didn’t take him seriously. Everett left the academic world shortly after finishing his dissertation. During a frustrating visit in Copenhagen, during which Everett tried to convince Niels Bohr to take some interest in his work, he (Everett) transformed a standard approach in classical mechanics into a method for optimization that he could apply to commercial and military problems and that helped him to become a multimillionaire — but didn’t make him happy. He became a chain-smoking alcoholic and died of a heart attack when he was only fifty-one years old. 

According to his explicit wish, his ashes were disposed of in the garbage. Fourteen years after his death, his daughter Elizabeth, who suffered from schizophrenia, committed suicide. In her suicide note she wrote that she was going into a parallel universe, to meet her father. His son Mark Everett became the famous rock star E, lead singer of the Eels. He described his father as distant, depressed, and mentally absent, and his own childhood as strange .and lonely. Only his music saved him. But he also expressed sympathy for his father: “These guys, I don’t think they should be held to subscribe to normal rules. I think that about rock stars, too.” Hugh Everett’s ideas about quantum physics were finally popularized in the 1970s by his advisor Wheeler and Bryce DeWitt, who had also worked with Wheeler. It was DeWitt who added the “many-worlds” label, a term that Wheeler never liked. 

The interpretation essentially states that every measurement results in a split of the universe. Every possible outcome of a measurement — or more generally of any physical process — is being realized, but in different parallel universes. If a guy chats up a girl in a dance club, there is always a universe where the two of them get happily married and remain in love until they die, but also another one where she tells him to back off, he has too much to drink, and he wakes up the next morning with a serious hangover. This very in­sight made me particularly nervous when I prepared to jump out of an airplane 4,000 meters above Oahu’s north shore. After all, even if I survived in this universe, there are always countless universes where the parachute did not open. So somewhere one loses, every time. But somewhere there is also a parallel universe where Everett still lives happily together with his daughter.

The major advantage of the many-worlds interpretation, compared with the classical Copenhagen interpretation, is that no collapse of the wave function — which, in any case, is not really part of the theory — has to be assumed. Even after the measurement has been performed, both possible outcomes­ like an electron at place A and an electron at place B — coexist, but they decouple, so that an observer who measures the elec­tron at place A does not notice the alternative reality with the electron at place B. 

In contrast to the collapse of the wave function, this process of decoupling can be described within the formalism of quantum mechanics. Perhaps this process­ so-called decoherence — is the only reason we witness so little quantum weirdness in our everyday lives. The drawback of the many-worlds interpretation, however, is that we have to give up the concept of a unique reality.

The interaction of different parallel universes is suppressed after a measurement, but not totally lost. So even in our daily lives we don’t reside in clearly defined conditions such as dead or alive. The parallel universes in which we and our fellow human beings experience totally different fates instead resonate as unobservable tiny admixtures of alternative realities into our universe.

Thus the many-worlds interpretation exhibits the Parmenidic-neo-Platonic nature of quantum mechanics most clearly. According to this point of view, the unity of the different realities is not completely lost. It is actually possible to recognize the multiverse — the collection of all of Everett’s parallel universes — directly as Parmenides’s primeval One: the unity of the world the ancient Greeks felt they had lost in the charted modern world, and for whose reunification with the individualized ego they looked in the ecstasy of their mystery cults, in their Dionysian arts, or in the flush induced by psychedelic drugs.

The bizarre properties of quantum physics naturally inspired the fantasies of both journalists and authors. The parallel existence of different realities in quantum physics, for example, became the subject of a Physics World cover in 1998, which depicts a couple on the phone arguing as follows: “Oh Alice . . . you’re the one for me”-“But Bob . . . in a quantum world . . . How can we be sure?”

An even more radical take on the many-worlds interpretation can be found in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Whenever the extraterrestrial crackpot Zaphod Beeblebrox, double-headed and addicted to Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters, starts the Infinite Improbability Drive, his stolen spaceship gets located in all places in the universe simultaneously, and tiny probabilities are amplified. In the novel this allows the spaceship to travel faster than light, and also causes various strange incidents, such as when a threatening pair of rockets gets sud­denly transformed into a dumbfounded whale and a flowerpot.

Finally, and now I am serious again, the many-worlds interpretation could protect time travelers from ludicrous paradoxes, and in this way make time travel a meaningful physics concept. But we’ll get to that later…

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Quantum Physics: The Multiverse of Parmenides 1 — Heinrich Pas

July 9, 2014
Heisenberg traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, in the fall of 1941 to visit his fatherly friend and mentor Niels Bohr. According to Heisenberg, his intention was to inform Bohr that the construction of a nuclear bomb was possible but that the German physicists would not try to build it and to suggest that physicists in the allied nations should follow the same policy. This epic conversation, however, only resulted in a lasting breakdown of their friendship. Bohr, the son of a Jewish mother and the citizen of an occupied country, could not have much sympathy for any agreement with the German physicist. From left to right: Enrico Fermi, godfather of the neutrino; Werner Heisenberg, a creator of quantum mechanics; and Wolfgang Pauli, the father of the neutrino.

Heisenberg traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, in the fall of 1941 to visit his fatherly friend and mentor Niels Bohr. According to Heisenberg, his intention was to inform Bohr that the construction of a nuclear bomb was possible but that the German physicists would not try to build it and to suggest that physicists in the allied nations should follow the same policy. This epic conversation, however, only resulted in a lasting breakdown of their friendship. Bohr, the son of a Jewish mother and the citizen of an occupied country, could not have much sympathy for any agreement with the German physicist. From left to right: Enrico Fermi, godfather of the neutrino; Werner Heisenberg, a creator of quantum mechanics; and Wolfgang Pauli, the father of the neutrino.

A major breakthrough in the story of quantum physics be­gins with a young man holed up in a rain pipe in order to find a quiet place for reading. It is the year 1919, in Munich, shortly after the end of World War I. The chaotic rioting in the streets that followed the revolution driving the German emperor out of office has finally calmed down, and now eighteen-year-old Werner Heisenberg can find some leisure time again.

He had been working as a local guide, assisting a vigilante group that was trying to reestablish order in the city, but now he could retreat, after the night watch on the command center’s hotline, onto the roof of the old seminary where his· cohort was accommodated. There he would lie, in the warm morning sun, in the rain pipe, reading Plato’s dia­logues. 

And on one of these mornings, while Ludwig street below him and the university building across the way with the small fountain in front slowly came to life, he came across that part in Timaeus where Plato philosophizes about the smallest constituents of matter, and the idea that the smallest particles can finally be resolved into mathematical structures and shapes, that one would encounter symmetries as the ba­sic pillar of nature-an idea that will fascinate him so deeply that it will capture him for the rest of his life.

Werner Heisenberg was to become one of the most important physicists of his generation. When just turned forty, he was the head of the German nuclear research program, which in World War II examined the possibilities for utilizing nuclear power, including the feasibility of nuclear weapons. In this position he was on the assassination list of the US Office of Strategic Services, but a special agent who had permission to kill Heisenberg in a lecture hall decided against it, after he heard Heisenberg’s lecture on abstract S-ma­trix theory and concluded. that the practical usefulness  of Heisenberg’s research was marginal.

Even today, historians debate Heisenberg’s role in Nazi Germany. His opponents criticize his remaining in Germany and his commitment to the nuclear research project, the so-called Uranverein, which, according to these critics, failed to build a nuclear weapon for Hitler only because Heisenberg was unable to do it. Extreme admirers, such as Thomas Powers in Heisenberg’s War, argue that Heisenberg used his position to prevent the construction of a German nuclear bomb by exaggerating its difficulties when questioned by officials, bestowing a moral mantle on Heisenberg he never had claimed for himself. 

What is well documented is that Heisenberg traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, in the fall of 1941 to visit his fatherly friend and mentor Niels Bohr. According to Heisenberg, his intention was to inform Bohr that the construction of a nuclear bomb was possible but that the German physicists would not try to build it and to suggest that physicists in the allied nations should follow the same policy. This epic conversation, however, only resulted in a lasting breakdown of their friendship. Bohr, the son of a Jewish mother and the citizen of an occupied country, could not have much sympathy for any agreement with the German physicist.

In 1998, the British author Michael Frayn wove different perceptions of this meeting into a play that essentially deals with the parallel existence of different realities, both in psychology and in quantum mechanics. After all, among all his other activities, Heisenberg was famous for one thing: was one of the masterminds of a revolutionary new theory. 

Just six years after the sunny morning in the rain pipe, Heisenberg, now twenty-three years old and a postdoc at the University of Gottingen, was forced by his hay fever to leave his institute for two weeks, and he spent some sleepless time on Helgoland, a tiny and once holy red rock off Germany’s coast in the North Sea-days that would shatter the most basic grounds of physics. One-third of the day the young man climbed in the famous cliffs; one-third he memorized the works of Goethe, the poet who served as a national idol in Germany and who followed the classical paradigm of the ancient Greeks; and the last third he worked on his calculations. 

In these calculations he developed a formalism that would be the bed­ rock of modern quantum physics and would do nothing less than change the world: “In Helgoland there was one moment when it came to me just as a revelation . . . . It was rather late at night. I had finished this tedious calculation and at the end it came out correct. Then I climbed a rock, saw the sun rise and was happy.

“Nowadays the technical applications of quantum physics account for about one-third of the US gross domestic product. Nevertheless, Richard P.Feynman commented some forty years after Heisenberg’s work that the theory is so crazy that nobody can actually comprehend it, and Einstein had earlier declared bluntly: this is obvious nonsense. What makes quantum physics special is that this theory breaks radically with the concept of causality. In our daily lives we are used to ordered sequences of cause and effect: You and a friend clink your glasses with just a little bit too much verve; one glass breaks; beer runs down to the floor; your significant other/ roommate/parents cry out. 

One event causes the next one. This is exactly where quantum physics is different, where this strict connection between cause and effect no longer exists. For example, how a particle reacts to an influence can be predicted only in terms of probabilities. But this is not the end of the story: Unless the effect on the particle is actually observed, all possible consequences seem to be realized simultaneously. Particles can reside in two different locations at once! And particles exhibit properties of waves while waves behave in certain situations  like  particles. 

An object thus has both properties of a particle and of a wave, depending on how it is observed. The particle corresponds to an indivisible energy portion of the wave, a so-called quantum. On the other hand, the wave describes the probability for the particle to be located at a certain place. This property of quantum mechanics can be depicted most easily with the famous double-slit experiment (Figure below).

Figure 3.2. Double-slit experiment. As long as no measurement determines which slits the particles are passing through, they behave like interfering waves, which pass simultaneously though both slits (left side). Where two  wave crests coincide, the probability of detecting a particle is largest; where a crest coincides with a trough, the probability is very small or zero. The resulting image is called an interference pattern. As soon as an external measurement disturbs the system-for example, if one uses irradiation with light to determine which path the electrons take through the slits — the wave collapses into single particles, which accumulate in narrow bands behind the slits they were flying through (right side).

Figure 3.2. Double-slit experiment. As long as no measurement determines which slits the particles are passing through, they behave like interfering waves, which pass simultaneously though both slits (left side). Where two wave crests coincide, the probability of detecting a particle is largest; where a crest coincides with a trough, the probability is very small or zero. The resulting image is called an interference pattern. As soon as an external measurement disturbs the system-for example, if one uses irradiation with light to determine which path the electrons take through the slits — the wave collapses into single particles, which accumulate in narrow bands behind the slits they were flying through (right side).

When a particle beam hits a thin wall with two narrow slits in it, the corresponding wave penetrates both slits and spreads out on the other side as a circular wave. On a screen situated behind the wall, in accordance with the wave nature of the electrons, an interference  pattern appears, resulting from the superposition of the waves originating from the two slits in the wall.

Where a crest meets another crest or a trough meets another trough the wave gets amplified. A crest encountering a trough, on the other hand, results in little or no amplitude (left side). This pattern appears, however, only as long as it is unknown through which slit a single electron passed. As soon as this is determined, for example by blocking one of the slits or by irradiating the electrons with light, the two-slit interference pattern gets destroyed and the electrons behave just like classical particles. To be more accurate, a new wave emanates from the slit, and the pattern exhibited on the screen is the one for a wave passing through a single slit, which resembles a smooth probability distribution (right side).

Heisenberg and Bohr interpreted this as a collapse of the wave function due to  the  measurement  process  in  which one gets a result with the probability given by the amplitude squared of the wave. This is the so-called Copenhagen inter­pretation of quantum physics, which is still taught at universi­ties around the globe. According to this interpretation, a par­ticle is located in many places simultaneously until finally a measurement assigns it a concrete location. And this is true not only for position; it applies to other measurable quantities such as momentum, energy, the instant of a nuclear decay, and other properties as well. 

Erwin Schrodinger, both collaborator with and competitor of Heisenberg in the development of quantum physics, carried this idea to an extreme: “One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be se­ cured against direct interference by the cat).”

In Schrodinger’s experiment the death or life of the cat depends on whether a radioactive isotope does or doesn’t decay in a particular time period. As long as we do not check whether the isotope did decay or not, nor how the cat is doing, Schrodinger’s cat is simultaneously dead and alive, or as Schrodinger phrased it: “[The wave function of the system would have] in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.

There are two reasons why we don’t observe such bizarre phenomena in our daily lives: One is that the wavelengths of ordinary objects around us are tiny compared with the sizes of the objects themselves. The other is that the objects we deal with every day are always interacting with their environment and thus are being measured all the time. A beer bottle, for example, may very well be situated in two different locations, but only for an extremely short time and for an extremely small separation (too short and too small to measure).

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Modern Philosophy and Death 2 — Roger Scruton 

July 8, 2014
The anxiety towards death is 'ontological'; it spreads over the existence itself, and undermines the 'ground of being'. What can we do to  assuage it? Heidegger  makes  some pregnant  but  obscure suggestions. Dasein, Wittgenstein tells us, must assume responsibility for its own being; and this can be done only through an ontological posture which he describes as 'being towards death': we must act out the of our own mortality, and never flee into fantasy or despair. We see death as the other side of life: to look death clearly in the face we see the meaning of life. Only then do we truly live.

The anxiety towards death is ‘ontological'; it spreads over the existence itself, and undermines the ‘ground of being’. What can we do to assuage it? Heidegger makes some pregnant but obscure suggestions. Dasein, he tells us, must assume responsibility for its own being; and this can be done only through an ontological posture which he describes as ‘being towards death': we must act out the of our own mortality, and never flee into fantasy or despair. We see death as the other side of life: to look death clearly in the face we see the meaning of life. Only then do we truly live.

Death, writes Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, is not part of life but its limit. He means that there is no such thing as ‘living through death’, so as to emerge on the other side of it. Death is not an experience in life, and there is no such thing as looking back on death, and assessing it from a new perspective. 

Others have argued in a similar way for the conclusion that the fear death is irrational. (Thus Lucretius and various Roman Stoics.) If, after death, I am nothing, there is literally nothing to fear. This, however, seems like sophistry. Death is also the loss of life and of the of the good things that come with life. And is it not rational to fear such a loss? Yet that too seems to miss the point: I could be threatened with the loss of all good things, and still regard this threat with equanimity or at least, without that queasy feeling which comes from that thought that soon I shall not exist. Why is my non-existence  so terrible?

Why, indeed, is it terrible at all? It is peculiarly  difficult to get one’s mind around this question. Every attempt to describe the evil of death suggests either that we fear the loss of goods (including  the good of life),  and so misses  the distinctive feeling of ontological insecurity; or else concludes that we fear  non-existence per se  — and that seems irrational.  In another sense, however, it is plainly reasonable to fear death: for if we did not, we should fail to secure our own survival, and therefore threaten the success of all our projects. Hence a rational being needs the fear of death, just as he needs the capacity for nausea at foul smells, or the disposition to sleep from time to time. But does that make the fear into a rational fear? 

What is a rational fear? Presumably it is rational to fear what will pain you. It is rational to fear some condition, to the extent that you would wish to get out of it, when you are in it. But again the criterion does not apply to death. If death is the end, then no one fears to escape from it, once it has arrived. When Achilles complains to Odysseus that he.would rather be the meanest serf on earth, than the greatest prince in Hades, he speaks from a point beyond death  — he speaks as a ‘spirit’ who has survived his encounter with death. But he justifies the fear of death only by showing that it leads to an irreversible decline in one’s fortunes; not by showing that it brings one’s fortunes to an end.

In response to this unanswerable riddle, it is tempting to turn the argument on its head, arguing that it is rational to fear the absence of death. Drawing on a famous play by the brothers Capek, Bernard Williams  (The Makropoulos Case) has argued for the ‘tedium’ of immortality, pointing out that our joys are mortal joys, dependent upon death for their desirability. The central character of the play, who has lived through every love and joy only to rise to a frozen plateau of cynical disregard for others, displays the true character  of a  practical reason that has been shorn of  mortal limits. (A more comic version of immortal tedium is to be found in the brilliant last chapter of Julian Barnes’s  A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters).

Traditional defenders of immortality would scarcely be disturbed by Williams’s argument. They would argue, with Aquinas (and Dante of Paradiso), that our mortal desires are precisely what we lose in dying; so as to devote ourselves to those other and more my enterprises which never grow stale. The worship of God bears infinite repetition, precisely because its object too is infinite. Never does the Mass or the Sacred Service weary the true believer, or cause him to doubt the meaning of its inner message. If there is eternal life why should that not be it?   ·

Timely Death
Such thoughts do nothing to console the timorous pagan. Is he caught  between  the irrational  fear of death that  the capacity for success demands, and the rational fear of a joyless longevity? would be terrible indeed.

Looked at from the third-person perspective, death is not always evil. Sometimes, indeed, it is a good. First, death may be conceivably  a rightful punishment. A person’s crimes may be sufficient reason for killing him: in which case, how can it be said that his death is an evil? (Think  of Hitler  or  Stalin: not  only  were  their deaths good in themselves; more miserable deaths would have been even better.)

Secondly, death can be seen as a liberation from appalling torments whether  physical  or emotional.  Thirdly,  and  more  mysterious death  can  be  seen  as  the  fitting  conclusion  to  life  of  great undertakings. The tragic hero is vindicated in death, which reflects back  into  his  life  the  redeeming  order  of  finality.  We  do understand this; yet we feel it, and our feeling is every bit as real a queasiness with which we contemplate our own extinction. Why should  not  our  reflections come to  rest  in  this  more  satisfying perspective, rather than dwelling on the nameless fear that gets us nowhere?

For ancient thinkers death could be vindicated in another way. Return for a moment to Aristotle’s discussion of virtue. The courageous man acquires a disposition to pursue what is honorable in the face of danger. Honor is what he wants, more than he wants to flee and it is irrational to acquire this disposition, since it is ‘a part of happiness’ without courage one can have no guarantee of the ‘success in action’ which is the final end of practical reasoning. But now, consider the moment of battle. The enemy will shortly overpower me, what is it rational for me to do?

For the coward, who desires to live himself,  it is rational  to drop his  shield  and  run.  For  the courageous man, whose heart is wedded to the thought of honor, it is rational to stand, even if death is the consequence. Since the courageous man’s desire springs from a disposition that all of us have reason to acquire, he is doubly reasonable. It is therefore rational to prefer honorable death to an ignominious survival. (This matter is discussed by Xanthippe and Socrates in a notorious Xanthippic dialogue: See Phryne’s Symposium, 1158a-b.)

That is perfectly intelligible from a third-person viewpoint. We all warm to the hero, who lays down his life for his friend. Even pacifists feel this witness the glorious tribute to self-sacrifice in Britten’s War Requiem. And one can feel this, while deploring the ‘pity’ of war. But it is intelligible too from a first-person perspective. One can learn not to love death, but at least to accept it as the best outcome in a dire situation.  There  are  circumstances  in  which  survival  is  a  fatal compromise of one’s life, a shame from which one could not recover, a disparagement of all that one has wished for and all that one has done. Hence, according to Nietzsche, the thought of a ‘timely death’ may be the ground of the true (i.e. pagan) morality.

Do those thoughts justify suicide? Schopenhauer believed so; as did many of Plutarch’s heroes. But it is one thing to justify  acquiring those virtues which make you likely to die honorably; another thing to justify the death itself.  

The Mystery of Death
Even if true, such thoughts do not quiet our apprehensions. Maybe nothing can quiet them. Maybe we should accept that the fear of death. It is not really a fear, since it is founded in no coherent thought of how we are harmed by dying. It is an anxiety.

This anxiety, according to Heidegger, has deep foundations. For it marks the insurgence into consciousness of the thought of our contingency. Death shows us that we will not be, and therefore that we might not have been. Our existence has no ultimate foundation; it is a brute fact for which we can find no reason, since all our reasons are generated within life and not from the point of view outside life to which we can never attain. 

The anxiety towards death is ‘ontological'; it spreads over the existence itself, and undermines the ‘ground of being’. What can we do to  assuage it? Heidegger  makes  some pregnant  but  obscure suggestions. Dasein, he tells us, must assume responsibility for its own being; and this can be done only through an ontological posture which he describes as ‘being towards death': we must act out the of our own mortality, and never flee into fantasy or despair. We see death as the other side of life: to look death clearly in the face we see the meaning of life. Only then do we truly live. 

Maybe this is what the tragedians tell us. It is certainly one of the themes of Rilke’s Elegies. But whether a philosopher can really convey such thoughts let alone a philosopher whose mastery of the written word advances no further than the stage reached by Heidegger — may reasonably be doubted.

 

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