Program Director William Saunders Addresses Human Rights in China with Chen Guangcheng

By William Saunders, J.D.

On October 9, the program in human rights held its second annual human rights lecture/discussion, “Thirty Years after Tiananmen Square – Human Rights in China Today.” Last year, the series was inaugurated in a conversation with Princeton professor and former Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Robert P. George, who also serves on the Advisory Board of the MA in human rights.  This year the speaker was Chen Guangcheng, a Distinguished Fellow at CUA.

Program director, William Saunders, began the event by referring to three anniversaries occurring this year – the four month anniversary of the demonstrations in Hong Kong, the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in China, and the thirtieth anniversary of the suppression of the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.  He noted that human rights in China was regularly in the news – only a few days earlier a public furor had erupted due to a tweet by the general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team in favor of the Hong Kong protests; the Chinese government replied that “Freedom of speech does not include the right to criticize the government,” and threatened to ban the NBA from China.

Noting that those under thirty-seven years of age might be unfamiliar with the events of Tiananmen Square, Saunders discussed those protests and the suppression of them by the Communist Party and the army.  He noted that we can get a good idea of what had happened in China afterwards by looking at the life of Guangcheng.

Guangcheng, who was born in 1971 in a poor village and who became blind in infancy because of inadequate rural medical care, became an advocate for the disabled and for the rural poor, becoming in the process the most famous of China’s “barefoot lawyers.” After several years in illegal detention, he was confined to his home, which was closely guarded.  Yet, he managed to escape to the U.S. embassy, and then on to the U.S.

Since coming to the U.S., he has been a tireless advocate for democracy in China, finding effective ways around the electronic wall China created to keep such information from reaching its people.  His lecture on human rights in China was followed by a question-and-answer session with Saunders. Then the event was opened to audience questions.

You can view the entire event here.

“The Power and the Glory”<br> Episode 17: The Death of a Whisky Priest

By Jennifer Frey and Angela Knobel at The Virtue Blog

In episode 17 of Sacred and Profane Love, IHE Fellows Jennifer Frey and Angela Knobel discuss Graham Greene’s masterpiece, The Power and the Glory. Set in Mexico during a period of brutal religious persecution, Greene’s novel explores questions of what true power and glory consist in, and what sort of love and life can make one a witness to it.

Listen here.

Anything that threatens Communism is a target, Chinese human rights advocate says

By JD Flynn

A Chinese human rights activist and former political prisoner has called for renewed focus on the country’s practices of mass detention, religious oppression, and reports of organ harvesting.

Speaking at an event Wednesday, Chen Guangcheng told listeners at the Catholic University of America that there is no doubt about the Communist regime’s determination to hold onto power by any means necessary.

“Human rights have declined and today are very bad,” Chen said of the current situation in China. The ruling Chinese Communist Party is “afraid of losing power,” he said, and so “anything that threatens its power will be a target for violence.”

Read more here.

Originally published at Catholic News Agency.

The event was hosted by the MA in Human Rights program at The Catholic University, lead by director William Saunders, J.D.. Learn more about the program here.

To a young aspiring theologian – don’t neglect Faith

By Chad C. Pecknold, Ph.D., IHE Fellow and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, The Catholic University of America

Theology is a science ordered to the end of seeing God, not reinterpreting Him through changing human standards

The young aspiring theologian who embarks on the academic study of theology encounters today a bewildering field of study. They may set out to understand their faith better, and perhaps one day come to teach it. But soon they may discover that theology is also about things other than God. They may soon come to see that theological claims are not simply true or false, but must be constantly reassessed in the light of some new theory about human experience, such as sexuality, gender, race, class, politics, climate, or simply “the future.” At the professional conferences, the young theologian is bound to hear papers which awkwardly “problematize”’ theological topics according to whatever is culturally ascendent. This is usually not done in order to bring a ray of God’s brightness into the darkest places of our cultural minds, but quite the opposite. The aspiring young theologian may thus become habituated to a discipline that trains them to talk far more about ourselves than about God. Like Narcissus, such a person can pursue the discipline of theology only to discover that they have not found God, but an image of themselves reflected in a cultural mirror.

This may sound like a criticism a conservative might make of theology today. But in the nineteenth century, something very much like this concern was raised by Ludwig Feuerbach. Following the liberal theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Feuerbach concluded that religion was principally a matter of subjective and social feeling, and that God was just a projection of man’s inner nature infinitely expressed. Theology was, in the end, just anthropology writ large. Feuerbach concluded that this was the essence of Christianity, and so, understandably if wrongly, rejected the ancient faith as so many of his countrymen after him have done.

If the vicissitudes of human experience are taken to be the standard by which theology is ordered and judged, I am afraid that our aspiring theologian will not find the discipline leading to the wisdom of God. It will only and inevitably lead to the collapse of faith itself. And this is why we must think better about the role of faith in theology as a sacred science which we have not made up for ourselves. As Augustine taught, only divine revelation can crush our errors.

Read more here.

Originally published on 24 September 2019 at the Catholic Herald.

Why God’s Grace Is Needed For Human Flourishing

By Michael Gorman, Ph.D., IHE Fellow and Ordinary Professor of Philosophy, The Catholic University of America

Thinking about human ecology means thinking about the environment humans need. This includes air quality and so on, but more importantly, it includes our moral and spiritual environment. And just as there are toxins to worry about in the physical environment, so too are there spiritual toxins. One of the worst is disregard for truth.

Sometimes the source of this toxin is greed. We promote the product we are selling by saying things we believe to be false, or by saying things without concern for whether they are true or not—a form of phony talk that the philosopher Harry Frankfurt has analyzed with some care. But greed is not the only source, and maybe not the most important.

Consider pride. We say things not to inform people of truths they need to hear, but to impress our hearers—to make them think we are knowledgeable and important. And if speaking in a deceptive or truth-indifferent way doesn’t work, there are other strategies. Sometimes a conversational non sequitur happens because someone shifts the conversation away from a topic where he’s unable to prevail to one where he is.

Pride, as Augustine taught, is the inordinate appetite for exaltation. Becoming humble involves giving up this appetite—giving up the desire to be the smartest person in the room, the person who won the argument, the person who had the last word. In principle, being a tenured academic makes it easier to arrive at such a purgation, because it makes one less subject to the pressures of politics and public opinion. On the other hand, academics are not particularly known for their humility. It’s a complicated issue, but in a fallen world, the only thing we can really count on for environmental clean-up is God’s grace.

Experts Explore Happiness

In every issue of CatholicU magazine, it features a Q&A with a least one faculty member focusing on his or her area of scholarship. This time, it invited five faculty members, including three IHE Fellows, representing the disciplines of theology, philosophy, and psychology to a roundtable discussion on the topic of happiness.

Read more here.

Originally published at CatholicU magazine.

The Truth About Intelligence

By Katie Bahr
Illustrations by LA Johnson

Inside the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, there’s a display of spycraft tools dating back to the earliest days of the organization’s history. Messages written in invisible ink. A radio transmitter hidden in a martini olive. A smoking pipe communicator that uses bone conduction technology. And cameras hidden in brooches, in cigarette packs, in umbrellas, and even in other cameras.

The CIA museum collection tells the story of how the world of intelligence has changed over the decades, progressing from hidden cameras to modern satellites and cybertech. One of the most recent exhibits is a scale model of the Abbottabad compound where Navy SEALs working in conjunction with the CIA conducted the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. Hanging on the wall beside the model is a Russian-made AK-47 believed to have belonged to bin Laden himself.

Read more here.

Originally published at CatholicU magazine.

The Favorability Rating of the U.S. Congress:<br> Is There Anything That Can Be Done?

By Emmett J. McGroarty, J.D., director of the Subsidiarity and the Constitution program at the Institute for Human Ecology

In a mark of solidarity, seventy-eight percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. That’s not a fleeting drop. The number has steadily declined through the years. Nor are such dismal numbers a surprise. Congress does not attend to necessities. It tends to make things worse or, at best, kick the can down the road.

Over the last century, Congress has done a poor job exercising the powers entrusted to it by the American people, and it has done a poor job protecting the constitutional structure. It has transferred power to the administrative state that, under the constitutional design, should remain with Congress. It has empowered the administrative state to pass labyrinth regulations that intimidate both individuals and corporations. It has encouraged the administrative state to subdue the states. And it refuses to address easily solvable problems.

A case in point is the Agency Accountability Act (HR 850; S.1456), a simple four-page bill. If enacted, it would restore Congress’s power of the purse by requiring that “any agency that receives a fee, fine, penalty, or proceeds from a settlement” deposit such amount in the Treasury’s general fund.

At issue is the $500 billion collected by agencies each year in fees, fines, penalties, and proceeds from settlements of legal actions brought against individuals and corporations. Under current law, agencies can do as they see fit with these funds. As Senator Mike Lee stated when introducing the bill:

Congress has given far too much power and authority to the executive branch and it is far past time for us to start taking it back. By forcing government agencies to get approval from Congress before spending government money, the Agency Accountability Act is an essential element of any effort to rein in executive branch overreach.

There are a couple of problems with the current practice.

Under the constitutional design, Congress raises the money and decides how it will be spent. As to raising the money, the Constitution states that “The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises” (Art. I, Sec. 8). Although fines, penalties, settlements and the like might fall outside the constitutional verbiage, Congress is still responsible for setting the parameters of the administrative state.

By letting agencies keep the money, Congress incentivizes them to pursue legal action against persons for the purpose of collecting money and thereby compromises their duty to exercise good faith and prudence in deciding who to pursue. Likewise, it further incentivizes them to squeeze as much money as possible from defendants, rather than to make a concerted effort to negotiate a just amount. Such untethered discretion creates ill will and a sense of unfairness among the citizenry.

Finally, such incentives could interfere with the efforts of both Congress and the president to direct the energies of the agencies. This fuels the sense that the citizenry has lost control of the government.

The Agency Accountability Act is a common-sense bill. It would be a small but decisive step in restoring the integrity of the constitutional structure. Is it likely to pass? Probably not. Congress is mired in partisanship. The House version has eighty-four cosponsors, all of whom are Republican. The Senate bill has four cosponsors, all of whom are Republican. As long as Congress fails to pass common-sense fixes, we should expect further decline in its favorability rating.

New graduate program in Human Rights delves into Catholic thought and perspective on human rights

By Elizabeth Bachmann

WASHINGTON (CNS) – This fall, five graduate students will embark on a unique, one-year journey back to the origins of thought on human nature.

They will study natural law and natural rights, anthropology, international law, religious liberty, global politics and papal encyclicals, emerging from the program with a fully formed, Catholic understanding of human rights and a zeal to defend and explain these rights.

The Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America is offering this master of arts degree in human rights for the first time in the fall of 2019. The program, headed and organized by William Saunders, lawyer and longtime human rights scholar and activist, is interdisciplinary, drawing classes from five of Catholic University’s schools.

Read more here.

Originally published on 23 August 2019 at Mississippi Catholic

Russia After Putin Is Not a Solved Problem

By Jakub Grygiel

Tyrannies are fragile things and when the fear upon which they are based crumbles, they collapse. The protests in Russia over the past weeks may be a sign of the growing fearlessness of some Russian citizens and the resulting weakness of Putin and his gang. There is good reason, therefore, to be hopeful that the Putinist kleptocracy may end. Who, or what type of regime, will follow the two decades of Putin’s rule is another matter. We can hope that it will be more lenient and less authoritarian, but the future of Russia’s domestic system is anyone’s guess.

In any case, the inevitable end of Putin—after all, sooner or later through elections, revolt, or their own death, all political leaders lose power—will not bring a solution to the security problems Russia creates. The Kremlin can change its occupants, but there is more continuity than change in Russian foreign policy. Putin will leave and Russia will remain.

Geography imposes a consistent simplicity of conception on Russian foreign policy. In a nutshell, Russia wants to be in Europe, but not of Europe. While it cannot be an Asian great power, Russia has sought in the past (as it is seeking now) to be the key European potentate.

Read more here.

Originally published on 15 August 2019 at The American Interest

Is Nationalism Consistent With the Catholic Faith?

By Bradley Lewis

It was not long ago that all right-thinking people believed in globalization as both an irresistible fact and a goal to be earnestly sought and promoted.

Globalization would feed the hungry, cure the sick, teach the ignorant, and bring with it the conditions of enduring peace. We had, it seemed, reached an era in which narrow identities and rivalries were transcended by a universalism that was increasingly embraced by more and more of the world. This universalism embraced nearly borderless free markets, the free movement of capital and labor, and a commitment to liberal democratic political institutions.

Certainly aspects of globalization did have extraordinary effects: Tens of millions of people were lifted out of dire poverty in China and India. Information began to move at blinding speeds, spurring innovation and real progress in many areas of human life.

Read more here.

Originally published on 6 August 2019 at the National Catholic Register

Civitas Dei Summer Fellowship: Seeking Earthly and Heavenly Flourishing

By Very Rev. Aquinas Guilbeau, O.P., Prior, Priory of the Immaculate Conception — Professor of Moral Theology, Dominican House of Studies

Robert Frost famously observed that good fences make good neighbors. The same could be said of good roads: they, too, can make good neighbors. The Catholic University of America and the Dominican House of Studies (DHS) know this to be true. Perched on opposite sides of Michigan Avenue in Northeast Washington, D.C., Catholic University and DHS have been good neighbors for nearly 115 years.

As across-the-street neighbors, Catholic University and DHS pursue distinct missions in Catholic higher education, the former as the official university of the nation’s bishops, the latter as a studium of the Dominican Order. As across-the-street friends, these two schools—each enjoying pontifical right—support each other’s work through frequent exchanges among faculty and students. Between the two schools, St. Peter’s counsel to the Church takes flesh: “As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pt 4:10).

Over a century strong, the friendship between Catholic University and DHS continues to find new expression. An example lies in the growing collaboration between Catholic’s Institute for Human Ecology and DHS’s Thomistic Institute (TI). Recent creations of their respective faculties, IHE and the TI co-sponsored in July their second Civitas Dei Fellowship. Organized by Prof. Joseph Capizzi and Fr. Dominic Legge, O.P., the directors of the institutes, the Fellowship “supports rising scholars seeking to better understand the Catholic intellectual tradition.” To that end, the Fellowship gathers graduate students from around the country—future lawyers, entrepreneurs, and professors—for intensive introductions to Catholic political thought.

At the invitation of Prof. Capizzi and Fr. Legge, I had the honor of lecturing at this year’s Fellowship. My topic was St. Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of the common good. These presentations complemented two other series of talks: Catholic’s own Chad Pecknold led discussions of critical chapters of St. Augustine’s City of God, and Harvard Law School’s Adrian Vermeule treated questions in contemporary constitutional law. All together, the three series, and the lively discussions they launched, offered fellows an overview of Christian legal and political theory, pinpointing how important parts of the ancient, medieval, and modern Catholic tradition aptly address contemporary concerns.

The Civitas Dei Fellowship is just the latest fruit of the long friendship enjoyed between Catholic University and DHS, a camaraderie stretching across Michigan Avenue but extending itself in service to Church and State. For the flourishing of both societies—the heavenly and the earthly—may this friendship thrive for years to come.

The Impact of Common Core

By Emmett J. McGroarty, J.D., director of the Subsidiarity and the Constitution program at the Institute for Human Ecology

We often think of centralized government as impairing sound decision-making, efficiency, and liberty. But it has other consequences to human flourishing. When centralized government makes decisions that individuals or local government should be making, it places the human person in lower standing. That may be abstract, but invariably it has practical consequences. The sad story of great, classic literature in America demonstrates this.

One of America’s great cultural achievements was the popular view that all children should have an academic education. That’s not to say that all should attend university, and it’s not to discount the trades, which certainly offer wonderful opportunities. It simply means that to flourish children should have a grounding in their culture and have an appreciation for the good and beauty of the Almighty’s creation. They should be equipped to pursue the truth, to fully exercise their liberties, and to be persons of substance in their communities and in their families. Early on, such an education took root in America. It included the study of classic literature–fiction, poetry, and biographies in narrative form.

Great literature sparks the imagination. It develops the ability to express one’s self, in verbal and written form, providing a sound means for the exchange of ideas. It hones one’s analytical skills.  Through it, one develops empathy and practices prudential decision-making without the consequences of the real world. It helps one handle uncertainty and ambiguity, enabling one to better resist rushing to conclusions and assuming the ill-will of another. Through great literature, we pass culture to others, including to following generations. It is a gateway to a passion for history. Reading great literature facilitates the study of the human condition.

In the 1800s a counter-theory arose to the American Experiment and began to gain favor in elitist camps. Experts must manage society to peaceful and prosperous ends. Citizen-directed government must be marginalized, all the better to give experts the necessary leeway. Likewise, the fabled checks-and-balances our Constitutional structure must be circumvented. That view favored a different type of basic education for the masses—a lower, utilitarian education that would further the narrow aims of employers and bureaucrats in a managed economy.

For over a century that view was increasingly reflected in public policy and the growing administrative state. From the1990s that trend accelerated and reached its apex with the development, and federally driven adoption of, the Common Core standards. Fidelity to those standards required a dramatic reduction in the amount of classic literature children read: as noted in the Revised Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3–12, “[m]ost ELA programs and materials designed for them will need to increase substantially the amount of literary nonfiction they include.”
See study here and commentary here and here.

What does this mean to the formation of the person? Does the trend away from classic literature lend itself to a climate of rancor and divisiveness, a rush to judgment and an inability to understand the perspectives of other? Does it callously deprive the human person of all but crude practices in the sharing of ideas with others? Does it deprive them of the beauty of appreciating another’s point-of-view, without necessarily agreeing with it?  Are we disintegrating into a society composed not of mere rivals but of enemies, as Alexis de Tocqueville described France to have been on the eve of the French Revolution?

State Department launches panel focused on human rights and natural law

By Carol Morello

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday announced the creation of an advisory commission on human rights that has engendered controversy since it was proposed.

Pompeo said the Commission on Unalienable Rights “will provide the intellectual grist of what I hope will be one of the most profound re-examinations of inalienable rights in the world since the 1948 Universal Declaration.”

The panel will be headed by Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard Law School professor who wrote a book about the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pompeo was Glendon’s research assistant when he studied law at Harvard. Glendon is also a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

Read more here.

Originally published on 8 July 2019 at The Washington Post

Reflections from an Institution

By Robert Royal

It’s a commonplace today that people have lost faith in institutions. And it’s no wonder. Wherever you look – politics, culture, education, even the Church – the institutions that normally provide us with stable identity and points of reference have become sources of disorder and disorientation.

Hillary Clinton famously wrote a book: It Takes a Village. She was expressing something not so much wrong as deceptive. It does take a village – and a family, and a church, and a school, and a community – to form children into mature and responsible adults. The “village” that progressive politicians talk about, however, is not an assembly of these natural civil society institutions, but an array of government programs designed to replace and, often, hasten the demise of real human connections.

In healthy times, people identify with family, faith, nation. At least among our cultural elites, identity these days revolves around race, class, and gender.

Read more here.

Originally published on 1 July 2019 at The Catholic Thing

Former US Ambassador to Holy See to Chair New Human Rights Commission

Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, will head a new human rights advisory body to the U.S. State Department, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Monday.

“It’s a sad commentary on our times that more than 70 years after the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, gross violations continue throughout the world,” Secretary Pompeo stated at a July 8 press conference announcing the new Commission on Unalienable Human Rights.

Pompeo said that “the time is right for an informed review of American human rights in foreign policy,” and that Glendon was “the perfect person to chair this effort” and chair the new commission.

Read more here.

Originally published on 8 July 2019 at The Catholic World Report.

Is a Civil Public Discourse Even Possible?

By IHE Fellow Emmett McGroarty, J.D.

Over the last 20 years, public discourse has tended toward the shrill and irrational, punctuated with occasional violence. No sharing of opinions. Don’t ask questions.  No discussion of points of view. Empathy is dead. Socialization—an essential human activity—is regulated by the mob, and its walls are shrinking.

 

Does the form or practice of our government have anything to do with this dystopia?

 

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville made a few observations worth mulling.

 

The structure of our government, he noted, preserved the power of the townships, most notably in New England but everywhere resting on the “same idea.” It preserved the natural order. Man, Tocqueville declared, “makes kingdoms and creates republics; the township appears to issue directly from the hands of God.”

 

“It is in the township, at the center of ordinary relations in life, that desires for esteem, the need of real interests, the taste for power and for attention, come to be concentrated; these passions, which so often trouble society, change character when they can be expressed so near the domestic hearth and in a way in the bosom of the family.” It is through local governance that the individual “gets a taste for order, understands the harmony of powers, and finally assembles clear and practical ideas on the nature of his duties as well as the extent of his rights.”

 

“Local freedoms, which make many citizens put value on the affection of their neighbors and those close to them, therefore constantly bring men closer to one another, despite the instincts that separate them, and force them to aid each other.”

 

As the Catechism observes, participation in civic life “develops the qualities of the person . . . and helps guarantee his rights” (par. 1882).  This subsidiarity—embracing socialization—leads to solidarity.

 

Given a century of increased centralization—taking more and more power away from local communities, should discord and rancor in the public square and on college campuses be such a surprise?

Emmett McGroarty studies public policies that undermine the constitutional structure and the principle of subsidiarity. He is the co-author of Deconstructing the Administrative State: The Fight for Liberty. He is also co-author of Controlling Education from the Top: Why Common Core Is Bad for America, Pioneer Institute, No. 87 (May 2012); and Cogs in the Machine: Big Data, Common Core, and National Testing, Pioneer Institute, No. 114 (May 2014). Mr. McGroarty is co-founder of truthinamericaneducation.com, a nationwide network of individuals and organizations that sheds light on the Common Core system and the collection of private data on children and their families. His published works have appeared in, among others, Breitbart, Christian Post, Crisis, Daily Caller, The Federalist, FoxNews.com, New York Post, Public Discourse, The Hill, Townhall, USA Today, and The Washington Times. He has testified before state and federal committees and commissions. Mr. McGroarty received an A.B. from Georgetown University and a J.D. from Fordham School of Law.

The European Slide Toward Irrelevance

By Jakub Grygiel

Elections for the European parliament, regardless of the results, are always a celebration of the EU project. Blue flags with the 12 golden stars are omnipresent when a “European electorate” casts its vote in what is considered the largest election in the world outside India. But the most recent elections are important for a different reason: They are part of a longer trend that is pushing Europe toward global irrelevance.

Two election results in particular are striking, not because of their novelty but because they demonstrate the resilience of certain political forces that are leading to Europe’s withdrawal from the global chessboard.

First, the rise of the “greens” in Europe. While not a new political force, the “green” movement is no longer an afterthought. In Germany it is now the second-largest party, replacing the Social Democrats. These results reflect a continent-wide drift toward environmental concerns instead of “social justice.” Essentially, they show the greening of the Left; the social justice warriors are now climate change worriers.

Read more here.

Originally published on 3 June 2019 at The American Interest. 

Exploring Wonder and Beauty in the Scientific World

How do aesthetic factors such as beauty, awe, and wonder play a role in scientific research? And how does this change in different cultures or fields?

These and other questions were explored during the first International Symposium on the Aesthetic Dimensions of Science, a day-long conference held at The Catholic University of America on June 3.

The interdisciplinary symposium was organized by Brandon Vaidyanathan, associate professor and department chair of sociology and a fellow with the University’s Institute for Human Ecology. Vaidyanathan chose to organize the event as part of an ongoing research project that explores the ways in which scientific research is not only methodical, rational, and objective, but is also shaped by aesthetic and emotional elements.

“When you read what prominent scientists have written across centuries, they’re often writing rather eloquently about the importance of beauty in science, and beauty as a driving principle, along with awe and wonder,” Vaidyanathan said. “What interests me as a sociologist is whether this is simply the providence of famous celebrity scientists and Nobel prize winners, or is this a part of the ordinary experience of the way scientists work?”

To explore this topic, Vaidyanathan invited astrophysicists, biologists, sociologists, and other renowned experts from around the world to present. The day began with a talk from James McAllister, a professor of philosophy at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who spoke about how scientists often describe scientific equations as beautiful. The question McAllister tries to explain is why scientists consider theories that strike them as beautiful as more likely to be true than those that do not.

To explain this, McAllister offers a theory which he calls aesthetic induction, a “learning process where scientists update their aesthetic preferences in the light of empirical performance.” Through this process, he theorizes, scientists look back on past successes and unconsciously begin to think of those experiences as more positive or aesthetically pleasing than other solutions, until eventually the correct solutions begin to seem beautiful to them.

“This provides a link between scientist’s preferences and the objective properties of theories and encourages scientists to think that their aesthetic preferences are tuned to true theories,” he said.

Also presenting during the morning was Mario Livio, an astrophysics professor from the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who spoke about the various kinds of human curiosity and why curiosity should be supported. His talk was followed by one from Robert Gilbert, a biology professor from the University of Oxford, who discussed the relationship between natural beauty and knowledge.

Afternoon presenters included sociologists Renny Thomas from Jesus and Mary College in New Delhi, India, and Stefano Sbalchiero from the University of Padova, Italy, who spoke about the ways scientists in India and Italy express their religion or spirituality in their work.

Duilia de Mello, Catholic University professor of astrophysics and vice provost for research support, also spoke in the afternoon and shared how she uses wonder and beauty to build curiosity and excitement for kids learning about science.

“Many of us here are actually teachers and we have a role in kids’ lives of triggering their curiosity,” de Mello said.

One of the keys to triggering curiosity among young people, de Mello said, is to start with interests that they already have. Another method is to use the technologies and communication styles that they use and to keep conversations going.

“Triggering dreams is relatively easy,” she said. “The problem is how do you follow up and keep them interested.”

This article was originally published by The Catholic University of America on June 5, 2019 and written by Katie Bahr, Assistant Director of Communications and Media Relations.

A Meaningful Life

By IHE Fellow Angela McKay Knobel, Ph.D.

For years, I have taught The Apology in my introductory philosophy class. Every year, some students hate Socrates. One year, one of my students found Socrates particularly annoying. As we were working through the text, she slammed her book down in frustration. “Why doesn’t this guy just get a job?” she exclaimed. The University of Tulsa apparently agrees with her. Just last month, the university announced the elimination of all traditional liberal arts majors. The rationale for these changes is made explicit in the introduction to the university’s strategic plan, entitled, “Jobs as Central to Life.” After stating in the first sentence that “higher education prepares people for a meaningful life,” the remainder of the document articulates a vision of just what preparation for a meaningful life amounts to. A university prepares its students for a meaningful life by giving them the skills they need to get a job when they graduate.

Socrates believed that a meaningful life is an examined life: that the unexamined life is not worth living. The administration of the University of Tulsa, by contrast, appears to believe that a meaningful life is an employed life. In this respect they seem to understand even less than that irritated college freshman.

Those of us who side with Socrates think that the value of a university education lies in its ability to stimulate the self-examination that makes life meaningful. We think that to engage in a sustained and serious study of subjects like history and philosophy and literature is invariably to come up against life’s most important questions, and we think meaning is found only in the process of grappling with those questions. Indeed, the hope is that the process that begins in the university will bleed into the rest of life: that students will emerge from university with a sense of seriousness and purpose and not least, humility.

Young people emerge from the university into a world that offers them more choices than ever before, choices that are as or more difficult than the choices any preceding generation will face. Should I accept a job that requires me to act dishonestly? Should I choose a higher salary if it requires me to spend more time away from my family? Do I have any obligations to an unplanned child or an ailing parent? The way they navigate these choices will determine the meaningfulness (or lack thereof) their lives have. If we merely give them jobs we will have given them nothing meaningful at all.

Angela McKay Knobel is an associate professor of philosophy. She has published extensively on medieval and contemporary ethics. Recently, Dr. Knobel was invited by the U.S. Naval Academy to participate in a review of the academy’s Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) Division curriculum, particularly of the area devoted to moral character. 

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