Thursday, August 26, 2010

Looking at "Abbr." - or, the Mirror of Life

One of the very best things one learns as one explores the vast cosmos - a trick hidden from most students, alas, and ignored by most of the modern industries - is that one can use knowledge from one field to make advances in another field. The little corner called "higher education" has tried to market this idea under the label of "interdisciplinary studies": they have "Physics for Poets", and (I presume) "Poetry for Physicists". Of course this only goes so far; there are what some call "Impassable Divides". I've seen them. I could tell you stories, but then today's column would be even more huge than it is going to be. So instead of telling you of the failures, I will tell you of the successes. As you might expect, they have to do with our Uncle Gilbert.

Speaking as a scientist, one of the startling things I have found in Chesterton's writing is an honest admiration for true Science - Science "writ large" as Father Jaki always writes. If you wish a detailed study of this matter, consult Jaki's Chesterton a Seer of Science. One of the more delightful epigrams, and the one which perhaps exemplifies my point today, is this:
The wrong is not that engines are too much admired, but that they are not admired enough. The sin is not that engines are mechanical, but that men are mechanical.
[GKC Heretics CW1:113]
If we really admire something...

Ah well. Let me interrupt for a non-science interlude. I do NOT say nonsense there; please! That word "admire" comes from the Latin mirari = "to wonder at". In other words, we ought to have a sense of wonder at the engine.

Earlier this week on the Duhem Society blogg I posted a fascinating excerpt from a little book I am reading. (I'm still not done, it's a terrible shame to think it takes me this long to finish a book with less than 100 pages!) It was in connection with my comments about "a university" and Newman's famous book, and it was really an amazing statement:
If there were no Catholic universities, the academic world would be the poorer for it. The reason Academe would be poorer is that it would lack an advocate of mystery.
[Francis J. Wade, S. J.: The Aquinas Lecture 1978: The Catholic University and the Faith, 4]
It would take another book (much larger than Father Wade's) to properly handle that amazing idea. But the important thing is not that "Catholic" part, but the "mystery" part - though they are connected, and my purpose is not to argue that connection. My point is to underscore the MYSTERY.

When we talk about "mystery" we usually understand something like one of GKC's Father Brown stories: an intellectual puzzle, phrased in a traditional form of literature, and brought to a clever and (hopefully) unexpected resolution - indeed, to a surprising resolution. The theological underpinnings of Christianity have long spoken of Mystery in a somehow related sense, though here there is not usually the sense of an "intellectual puzzle". In religion, "Mystery" is tied up with the term "Mystic" - meaning a person who touches or perhaps perceives a Mystery. Let us hear Chesterton who has done truly great work on elucidating this difficult matter:
A poet may be vague, and a mystic hates vagueness. A poet is a man who mixes up heaven and earth unconsciously. A mystic is a man who separates heaven and earth even if he enjoys them both. ... no true mystic ever loved darkness rather than light. No pure mystic ever loved mere mystery. The mystic does not bring doubts or riddles: the doubts and riddles exist already. We all feel the riddle of the earth without anyone to point it out. The mystery of life is the plainest part of it. The clouds and curtains of darkness, the confounding vapours, these are the daily weather of this world. Whatever else we have grown accustomed to, we have grown accustomed to the unaccountable. Every stone or flower is a hieroglyphic of which we have lost the key; with every step of our lives we enter into the middle of some story which we are certain to misunderstand. The mystic is not the man who makes mysteries but the man who destroys them. The mystic is one who offers an explanation which may be true or false, but which is always comprehensible - by which I mean, not that it is always comprehended, but that it always can be comprehended, because there is always something to comprehend. ... Every great mystic goes about with a magnifying glass; He sees every flea as a giant - perhaps rather as an ogre.
[GKC William Blake 4, 131-2, 155]

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. ... The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid. ... Symbols alone are of even a cloudy value in speaking of this deep matter; and another symbol from physical nature will express sufficiently well the real place of mysticism before mankind. The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:230, 231]
Well, I could go on, but clearly this is another wonderful research topic. The point you see, is that one begins to realize that there is always something more... it is grasping that reason itself requires an initial commitment to something unreasoned (though NOT unreasonABLE) - the acceptance of some truth exterior to that proven, or provable. Again, I am NOT going into this here as much as it needs to be gone into - but I do have something to say, and I want to get to it.

In the course of my work (Ah!) I have relied heavily upon all this, as well as upon that most practical line from Heretics about reverting to the doctrinal principles of the thirteenth century. One of the links provided by this mysticism was the one which gave me an elegant way of handling the daily transport of some 17,000 files to-and-from a location in the Rockies to our location somewhere in southeastern Pennsylvania. It was not my idea; it was God's; it was how He manages transport of messenger RNA within eukaryotic cells. (I got it from reading a book on biochemistry.) Another came from the famous Gray's Anatomy; I've written about that one in my book on Subsidiarity, which is still awaiting a publisher. But there is more to the mystery of mystery - and aptly enough, it touches on the mystery of life itself.

But I will get there by a kind of pun - the pun in my title, represented by the symbols "abbr." As you may know, this is nothing more than the abbreviation for the word "abbreviation".

Here, I shall delete a whole extraneous diatribe about the so-called "problem-solving skills" one continually hears about from "educators" and simply teach you another of them, one of the more powerful known to computing. It is simply "abbr." - the idea of self-reference, though we have a more formal name and call it "recursion". No, I am not going to lecture on that formalism, or teach you factorial (surprise!) or make comments about the Peano axioms and mathematical induction. Rather, I want to tell you about how it happens in life.

Life - when we learn about it at the molecular level - consists in two very unusual things, which are really one thing. Life is a complex system of a variety of molecules - most of which are complex collections of carbon and three or four or five other elements (some call this CHONPS) - but they are busy molecules, reacting with each other, or more importantly NOT reacting with each other. That is because they are all collected within some water, and are at what we call "physiological temperature" - they are warm, and so are bumping around within that water. One would not be wrong to claim "Life's one big pool party" - if you look through that microscope GKC mentioned in connection with Blake.

But as you have heard before, there is a mystery to life. It is most simply phrased, "What came first, the chicken or the egg?" Nowadays, since we know a little more about it, we could say it a little differently, but I don't want to go into a lot of that detail now. I do hope you've heard the term "DNA" by now, since we need to talk about it next.

The mystery isn't so much that there's a pool party. The mystery is that one pool party can give rise to another and now there are two. How this is done involves things like DNA and RNA and two marvellous engines called "polymerase" and "ribosome" (yes I am skipping all sorts of tech details here).

But I won't skip all of the details.

Just as I told you about "abbr." and the computer-science problem solver called "recursion" I do have to tell you this much about life. The DNA, you see, contains the exact instructions to build those two engines. Oh it seems very readily understandable that one could "copy" DNA into another DNA. Somehow. We have photocopiers, don't we? We can make a copy of a piece of paper.

Ah, now here comes the mystery.

Obviously if that paper is a blueprint for the photocopier, we could make another copy of the blueprint. Yeah, that's nice, but the thing is we need a copy of the photocopier itself.

There - you see it? We have a self-reference. We have "abbr." We have recursion.

Yes, the DNA code (they call it the "genome") contains instructions to build the polymerase and the ribosome, and all the other tools those machines require. (It also contains instructions for other things - building the heart, or the skin, or the eye - all that.) But the "common denominator" to life is this self-reference, the idea that somewhere in the 3,000,000,000 bases of DNA the instructions say "and don't forget to make a copy of these instructions".

Now for the mystery in the other sense.

In that other technical work I do, which some call "prayer" I often say the rosary, or what we could call the "hand-held gospel". One day I was saying the "Second Glorious Mystery" during which we consider the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. As you no doubt know, this is mentioned just at the conclusion of the Gospel of St. Luke and also in its sequel "Acts of the Apostles". Also associated with this event is the "Great Commission" given at the conclusion of St. Matthew's gospel, which I will quote:
Going therefore, teach ye all nations: baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.
[Mt 28:19-20]
And somehow I started thinking about DNA and life and then.... OH. Well... how very curious. In the very last command of our Lord, what do we find?

"Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you"


Hence it is recursive. It is self-referential. It is like the ribosome code appearing in DNA, or like "abbr." Wow! (hee hee) In fact, this one phrase constitutes the Life of the Church, the mystical Body of Christ on earth, since it constitutes the replication process in itself. The "increase and multiply" of Genesis is here renewed, and life takes on a whole new meaning - even though it is still mysterious.

(What does all this mean? Did "Doc" explain life (in DNA)? Did he explain the Church? Did he even explain this "recursion"? )

Not really. I tried to show you something - put it out into view for you to look at.

(And why did you bother mentioning the mirror? You didn't say anything about mirrors.)

Well, that's part of the mystery - a mirror is a kind of simple symbol of recursion. Recursion is nothing by itself - a mirror shows nothing in the dark. But there is something strange - something mystical about this idea, just as there is something about recursion and the divine design of life (the biological or the kind Jesus meant when He said "I am the life").

Ah well. Since I didn't do so well with this prose approch, I will try a poetic one, and then leave you to ponder the matter. Some years ago I wrote a poem which tries to explain about mirrors and glass - or what a friend of mine calls "the strange color of the nearby" - but perhaps that too is a mystery. Well, try it anyway.
Mirror and Glass
"But glass is a very beautiful thing, like diamonds; and transparency is a sort of transcendental colour."
G. K. Chesterton, The Poet and the Lunatics

There are some colors none have seen:
Like ultra brown and infra green,
Fluorescent black and vivid gray;
All those I hope to see some day...
(Perhaps, because I’ve dropped some hints
The colorists will brew those tints!)
But there are two I see quite near
And on reflection it is clear
Neither one will ever be made
While the laws of light are obeyed.

[Copyright © 1998 by Dr. Thursday. This poem appeared in Something Good To Read for April 29 1998 and is used by kind permission of the Editor-in-Chief.]

Er - having quoted myself I felt it not appropriate to end that way. So I shall give you one further bit of GKC which may help a little:
The sublime words of St. John's Gospel permit of a sympathetic parody; if a man love not God whom he has not seen, how shall he love God whom he has seen? [1 John 4:20, also John 1:18, 6:46] If we do not delight in Santa Claus even as a fancy, how can we expect to be happy even if we find that he is a fact? But a mystic like Blake simply puts up a placard for the whole universe, like an old woman letting lodgings.
[GKC William Blake 102]

P.S. On re-reading this, I think it will be necessary to say some more about "mystery". But I will do that another time. If you want a thrill, however, try re-reading the scene from Easter Sunday about the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, and re-think it in terms of the classical "detective fiction" you know about. It's uncanny.


  1. Do you know the rhetorical theories of Kenneth Burke at all? His idea of "perspective by incongruity," in a book called Permanence and Change (1935), seems to be in keeping with some of what you have to say, especially about how different fields can inform each other.

  2. Also astonishing is the fact that all the information for the entire man is in every DNA. DNA is a kind of homonculus, in a sense. Similarly, every fragment of light (so to speak) shares the entire spectrum of its whole source.

    Once, during a partial solar eclipse, I noticed the shadows from the leaves on the tree. Each individual shadow was crescent-shaped, like the sun itself at that moment.

    Perhaps in the same way that the DNA of your toenail contains the material for a complete copy of you (the entire you), so each member of the Body of Christ may contain the complete image of our Source.


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