Memory and Identity

jp ii memory and identityThe title of this brief reflection is drawn from Pope Saint John Paul II’s final memoir, published in the year of his death, 2005, wherein he reflects upon various themes, especially in the light of the twentieth century and his own experiences.  A guaranteed excellent read.  However, I use his title to prompt our own reflection on the nature of memory, especially in light of developing technology I recently heard of in a documentary, by which memories, especially those that are painful or traumatic, may be erased from the brain.  Such stuff has provided the fodder of science fiction movies and stories from Blade Runner  and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind to Robocop and the forgettable Ben Affleck vehicle Paycheck (none of them necessarily recommended viewing!  Although, two of these movies are based on very good short stories by the science fiction author Philip K. Dyck).  What was once fiction may now become reality.

There are various theories on the nature of memory.  Most of the current hypotheses, in our materialist culture, presume that memory is nothing more than neuronal activity; that is, memory is purely physical, stored in the brain itself.  These memories  may exist in a diffuse way throughout the cerebral cortex, or localized in deeper regions of the brain, such as the thalamus, where more emotionally significant memories are retained.  Theoretically, therefore, one could destroy specific neural connections to remove a bad memory.  After all, traumatic brain injury will often result in some level of amnesia.  We could, in theory, control such memory loss by surgical or chemical means, thereby removing specific neuronal connections and the memories associated with them.

Of course, in the Christian view (which means the real one) memory is more than physical; at its deepest level, our memories are intellectual and immaterial, ‘stored’ in the soul itself.  After all, I am sure that now Saint John Paul II in heaven recalls his life on earth!  Certainly, while we are this side of heaven, there is a material substrate to such memories, and access to them may be limited by physical damage to the brain, but, even in those with advanced Alzheimer’s, our ‘self’, our ‘identity’, remains in our souls, waiting for the resurrection, when all things will be restored in Christ.

Of course, this takes us beyond science, so let us remain on the material level, and presume such a technology of physical memory-deletion is possible (and, at the current stage of research, that is a big given):  Would we want, or should we want, to remove memories cause us great pain or sorrow?

Such a question raises serious ethical issues, for, as our late Holy Father implied, our memories form the most significant aspect of ‘who we are’, our identity, as persons.  To remove our memories, therefore, is to remove a part of our very selves.

There are hard cases, of course:  Victims of sexual abuse, or war crimes, or those who suffer the traumatic and sudden loss of a child.  Such memories inflict on those who hold them often a lifetime of debilitating suffering.

Yet should we remove such painful memories?  Or, perhaps, at least the emotional impact of the such memories?  But, as one ethicist asked, would we want a mother to forget the death of her child?  Or, perhaps, to recall the trauma, but without emotion?  Would not such an intervention be inhuman?

We all have painful, and also beautiful, memories; sometimes they are the same memory, seen from different vantage points, for God only permits evil to bring out of it a greater good.  Rather than try to remove such memories, the better way is to hold on to purify them, not to dwell morbidly on the bad, but to see the action of God’s providence in them, and not to linger obsessively on the good, but to see God’s gracious will in His favour towards us.

After all, the most important time, to paraphrase Saint Paul, is not the past or future, but the ‘now’, the present, which is the only ‘time’ that God Himself knows, He Who sees all things totum simul, all at once.  In heaven, we will see how all the acts, omissions and events of our life led to our eternal destiny.  To try to use technology to remove our past, as though it did not exist, is to mistrust this providence of God.  In the end, after the travails of this life, we will see how all of our memories, all of our joys and sorrows, gave glory to the living God, so long as we accept all things as coming from His hand.

Ocotober 31, 2014

Wars of Religion




So we have had, apparently, our first terrorist attacks on Canadian soil since the rise of ISIS/ISIL.  Two Canadian soldiers run down in a parking lot, and another shot while standing guard at the Canadian War Memorial, while holding his unloaded rifle (as policy dictated).  Two soldiers murdered, both by young men who had been ‘radicalized’ by the form of Islam practised by the members of the new ‘Islamic State’.  It is curious that the media uses the term ‘radicalized’, which literally means to ‘return to the root or the origin’.  Are we witnessing here a return of Islam to its original intent in the seventh century, to convert the entire world by fire and sword (or hunting rifle, or moving car)?  God rest the souls of the soldiers who died, and their misguided killers.  We should step back and consider this situation with clear reason, and how to respond.


It makes sense that a religion would want to convert others to its creed.  After all, any religion, certain of the truth (or, at least, certain that they are certain of the truth) would naturally want to hand that truth on to others, and free them from their (presumed) false opinions and their (apparent) ignorance.  Even the so-called ‘non-religious’ amongst us do have a kind of religion (see my previous blog of whether religion can be ‘evil’).  Afer all, ‘religion’ may be defined broadly as  those principles that guide our conduct and that, as Saint Thomas states, are the ‘master of our affections’.  We all, in some way or other, whether explicitly or impliclitly, want to bring others to our viewpoint, at least those close to us (our children, our friends, and so on).   There is nothing really wrong with this, so long as reasoned debate and dialogue are the means of conversion, and not coercion and, in the current form of Islam, the threat of a violent death.


Is Islam we see in Iraq at present (and its slightly more diluted forms throughout the world) ‘real’ Islam?  Such a question is difficult to answer, for Islam has no Magisterium, no official teaching authority to which one can refer.  We have the example of the founder and the early history of the religion, we have the founder’s Suras or sayings, collected after his death in their holy book known as the Qu’ran.  Many of these sayings are open to various interpretations, but they do imply some level of coercion in converting others to Islam (however one interprets ‘jihad’).


The main problem in Islam, to which Pope Benedict referred in his 2006 Regensburg address, is that it bifurcates faith and reason.  Man cannot question the commands of Allah, and God may indeed ask something of us that is irrational, for his decrees are not open to human understanding.  In fact, the distance between man and God in Islam is such that God cannot be referred to as ‘Father’, one of the principal tenets of Christianity.


Hence, anyone can really say and do anything in the name of Islam, and justify it as the ‘will of Allah’, citing various controversial Suras of the Qu’ran to undergird their viewpoint and their  actions.


Although freedom of religion is a principle of modern democracy, the State also has a duty, and a more fundamental one at that, to protect its citizens from the harm of others.   Yet what do we do as a nation when a whole given creed, in this case ‘radicalized Islam’, has as its intent the forced submission, and even the destruction, of those who disagree with their principles?  Can a religion, or at least a given version of a religion, be outlawed in the interests of safety?


Here, I am reminded of the 2002 Spielberg/Cruise film Minority Report, based on a short story by the science fiction author Philip K. Dyck, wherein people are arrested before they commit a crime, on the advice of so-called ‘pre-cogs’ who can see the future.


Can we arrest someone for an ideology, or under the pretense that they may prove a danger to the State and its citizens?



When England declared war on Germany in 1939, Germans in England were put into confinement (basically prison camps), even if they had lived in Britain for years, and were married to Englishwoman, and could not even speak German.   The conundra raised by such policies make good fodder in the dramatic series Foyle’s War. 


Is this just?  Our initial response, trained by many years of propounding the inviolable principle of freedom, may say no, but fear and the instinctual desire for protection give us pause to think, well, maybe, especially if the potential jihadists have posted threats on social media.  After all, freedom is not absolute.


This is not a war in the traditional sense of the word.  Even in Iraq and Syria, how are our soldiers to know who is ISIS/ISIL and who is not?  Do these ‘fighters for Islam’ wear uniforms?  What is to prevent them  protesting their innocence when cornered, claiming to be peace-loving Muslims, caught in the crossfire?


We may think back to the Vietnam war, wherein the enemy, the Viet Cong, looked, dressed and acted just like the non-Communist south Vietnamese, except when they decided to start shooting.


This indeed is a war unlike other wars, a war of ideology, a war, really, of religion.   As I have written before, whatever one says about these Islamists, they seem to believe their religion, and are quite willing to die for their creed.  We in the West, on the other hand, have little left to bind us together, or to any sort of inviolable creed.  That gives them a strength that we may not have.


I would propose that the only way to fight and defeat radical Islam is to rediscover our own Christan roots, to become ‘radicalized’ in our own way, in the truth, so that we have something worth fighting and dying for.  Only then will we find fellow converts to the truth, and offer those countless young men in the danger of being radicalized a true reason to live and to die, and, more importantly, to love in the true sense of the word.

October 24, 2014

Robo C.O.P.P

As a thought experiment, I will sometimes ask people what their first impression is when they see a police car (here, in Ontario, an O.P.P. vehicle).  Almost invariably, the answer is ‘fear’.  I find this curious, that we fear those who are deputed by the State to ‘protect and serve’, as indeed they should, for they are our employees, who should stand in harm’s way when harm comes our way.


I think this fear has two principal causes:  The hyper-militarization of the police, and the growing extent of law to cover more and more of our daily lives.


Consider the first:  I would have no real problem with the police dressing and acting like Robocop if indeed a significant segment of the population were wreaking harm and havoc, and had to stopped by brute force, with the real danger of immediate and violent death, as we may witness daily in northern Iraq.


Most of us here in Canada have little cause for such militarized police protection; we are blessed to live rather tranquil lives (outside of certain urban locales, like Jane and Finch in TO).  The murder rate in Canada, and the rate of violent crime in general, is lower than almost anywhere else in the world, with the exception perhaps of a few geriatric European socialist states like Denmark and Sweden.  Most of us, however, generally law-abiding citizens that we are, just want to get on with our daily lives, yet find ourselves living in a state of almost perpetual tension whenever a cop car drives by.  The police, in general, spend most of their time policing about 2% of the population, and the rest of it policing ‘us’, their employers.


The second problem, the growing extent of law to cover more and more of our daily actions, exacerbates the first.  Thomas Aquinas asks whether the law of the State should forbid all vices; when I ask my students this question, many respond with an ‘of course!’, not realizing that ‘vice’ implies any deviation from the moral law.  The State, of course, cannot possibly forbid every single ‘sin’, for the obvious reason that such a task would be impossible or at least far outreach the proper sphere of the State.  Imagine a law against ‘lustful thoughts’ (although we may be getting close with some extreme sexual harassment lawsuits).  What of cussing?  (Although even here we have censorship laws in public broadcasting).  Or of smoking in public?  This problem is even worse in the U.S., where the government department responsible for collecting student tuition debt apparently has its own S.W.A.T. team.  And don’t forget, that student debt is the only kind not open to being forgiven by declaring bankruptcy.  They will find you.


The difficulty with the any law of the State is that the whole power of the State stands behind them (which include the capacity and right to inflict harmful and ultimately lethal punishment).  Some things we do not want enforced by men (and, alas, now women) with 9mm semiautomatic SIG Sauer P226 handguns and bulletproof vests (just for starters; their arsenal includes far more than this).  Robocop should be reserved for situations that require, well, robocop.


One may recall the scene from the eponymous 1987 film, wherein the cyborg police officer (who looks a lot like a modern cop in riot gear, but with a bit more ‘artificial’ intelligence) fires upon a perpetrator breaking public smoking laws.  In the movie, it’s due to a flaw in the hierarchical nature of his circuitry in distinguishing ‘real’ crime from indiscretions.


In modern policing, the problem is more complex, as there are real humans involved, with their own conscience, fears and insecurities.  But a big part of the difficulty lies with the fact that all laws must, in the end, be equally enforced, for to ignore one law is to ignore them all.   Back to Thomas:  He answers his own question on the extent of law by stating that public law should only forbid those things which truly harm other people, without which society could not function, such as ‘murder and theft and the like’.  Otherwise, if the people are kept under too strict control by a multitude of minute laws, they will burst forth into even greater evils, either in secret, fostering a black market and hoping not to get caught, or eventually in public, citing rebellion and, ultimately, revolution.


Ponder my previous entry on underage and public drinking laws which, like the more draconian Prohibition earlier this century, simply drove drinking underground, and made everyone a criminal.  Now, if you are like most of us and drive a vehicle, you are basically always breaking the law.  How many of us actually drive 100 km/h on the 401, or 80 on the secondary highways?  Try setting your cruise control at those speeds, and feel the angry wind, and gestures, of all the cars blowing past you.  Someone I know was recently stopped here in the sleepy small town where I live for not stopping for a full three seconds at a stop sign.  Do we really want Robocop enforcing children’s bicycle helmet laws? (to say nothing of the coming adult helmet laws, already in force out east)


As one police officer in the U.S. put in during an apparently illegal and reckless military-style bust of a hairstyling salon, for some unidentified violation, when confronted by one of the owners with the question ‘what did we do?’, he replied ‘It’s a big book, m’am, and we can always find something to put you in jail’.  The miseducated officer unwittingly summed up the problem.


By putting the law back into its proper perspective, the actions of the police will, hopefully, follow, for they are deputed, one presumes, to uphold the law.   Growth in the extent of law, has led to a metastization of policing in this country (and, indeed, throughout the world), as we pay  their (our?) expensive military-grade equipment, along with the ever-increasing and unsupportable salaries, perks and early pensions.   If this uncontrolled growth is not halted, Robocop may well show up one day at your door, demanding you put out that cigarillo.  Who knows?  As Saint Thomas more or less warns, he may one day find there’s a Clint Eastwood behind that cigar, ready to live free or die.


Or to use an analogy from Marvel comics, society itself may become like Bruce Banner pushed too far, turning into some raging green monster.


But, then again, perhaps that is just what they are preparing for.

October 13, 2014



The Family is the Future

It needs no expertise in sociology to determine that the family is in trouble.  It seems now as though the ‘intact’ family (parents, a male and a female, with the requisite chromosomes, married but once and still together, along with their children) is the exception and not the norm.


The same is becoming true even for families within the Church.  What was once a problem ‘out there’ is now an extensive problem for Catholics also, and has been for some time.


Hence, Pope Francis decided to call an Extraordinary Synod on the Family, whose official title is “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” begins in Rome on October 5th and continues until October 19th.  The overall purpose of the Synod is to formulate a pastoral response, rooted in the Gospel and the teaching of the Church, to the complex situation of the family in today’s troubled world.   The topics to be discussed, especially how they impact families, are varied indeed:  Divorced and remarried Catholics, those ‘waiting’ for annulments, single mothers, cohabitation outside of marriage,  teen mothers, the children of same-sex couples, promoting monogamy in polygamous cultures, the plight of poverty, migration, abuse within familes,  consumerism and individualism, and so on.


On the positive side, for the Church always emphasizes the positive, is the need to proclaim the beauty of the family, the importance of the vocation of marriage and of bringing children into the world, and, in the end, reinvigorating the family as a resource, indeed, perhaps the primary resource for the evangelization of the world in the 21st century and beyond.  As the Church’s social documents say quite clearly, the family is original, fundamental and irreplaceable cell of society.  Without the family, there is no society, just a group of individuals out to get all they can in Hobbesian fashion, red in tooth and claw (see the sequel to Mad Max, Road Warrior, for a vivid visual image of such a ‘society’).


Thus, those within the Church have a special and unique obligation to live out family life to the fullest.  In today’s world, that requires faith and hope in an unusual degree; dedicating one’s life to another person irrevocably, and bringing children into this troubled world, are not easy decisions.  But embarking upon such a path, with its encumbent responsibilities, also brings great joy.  We must be a people of hope, and live always not just for the present, but the future.


We cannot allow the family to remolded into the a priori assumptions of various ideologies, feminist, homosexual, permissive, polygamous, all of which have no basis in nature.


Thus, we are asked to pray for the discernment of the Holy Father and the Bishops as they discuss these issues, and, eventually formulate a pastoral solution and practise to allow families, as Pope Saint John Paul II declared to ‘become what they are’.  The prayer below is the one found at the end of the document outlining the plan of the Synod, Instrumentum Laboris, itself a very useful further read.  We could pray this daily, to invoke the intercession of the Holy Family, as a type and model for all familes: (


(I am also indebted to the Catholic News Agency for its summary of the aims of the Synod).


Holy Family of Nazareth, intercede for us!

October 7th, 2014

Our Lady of the Rosary