Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sola scientia: the doctrine that science alone is the means to truth

Many Protestant Christians talk about the doctrine of sola Scriptura to mean the belief that the Bible alone is the source of knowledge. But many scientists have their own such doctrine: sola scientia: that science alone is the source of all truth. There is a very interesting article on modern cosmology in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Carlin Romano, professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College. He discusses Stephen Hawking's cosmological assertions in his new book The Grand Design and puts them in the wider context of cosmological speculation in the 20th century. He especially emphasizes Hawking's scientistic views in relation to 20th century developments in the philosophy of science, much of which Hawking ignores. He focuses on the reaction to the rising influence of science by Ludwig Wittgenstein and his student Stephen Toulmin:
Toulmin urged scientists to learn from other intellectuals. In ancient times, Toulmin pointed out, cosmology meant more than how the universe mechanically operates. Rather, it captured the Greek notion that the entire world "forms a single, integrated system united by universal principles."

For Toulmin, that "traditional world picture" happily combined "an astronomical, a teleological, and a theological picture." Unfortunately, Toulmin argued, the rise of Cartesian modern science undermined this tradition of broad-based cosmology and interest in "cosmic interrelatedness." Eventually, "nobody in the sciences any longer needed to think about 'the Whole.'"

But Toulmin ended his story on an upswing. Developments in 20th-century philosophy of science—from Thomas Kuhn's vision of a historical practice with changing paradigms to quantum theory's uncertainties—invited a return to traditional cosmology. According to Toulmin, sophisticated scientists increasingly recognized that "Laplace's ideal of the scientist as 'an unobserved, uninfluencing observer'" was "unattainable in principle for reasons of basic physical theory."

Hawking seems to have ignored these philosophy-of-science developments as he focused on such hypotheses as splintered string theory and the vaunted M-theory of everything. Ironically, as some reviewers have pointed out, it is he who seems not to have kept up with philosophy. Hawking insists that any notion that is "incompatible with modern physics" must be wrong. But the history of science's errors and misconceptions shows that extraordinary confidence to be unjustified. In arguing for a cosmology that's not exclusively scientific, Toulmin warned that the "disciplinary specialization of the natural sciences can no longer intimidate us into setting religious cosmology aside as 'unscientific.'"

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Scientists Theorizing Badly

Marcelo Gleiser, a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College--and apparently no theist himself, argues that scientists like Stephen Hawking who hope to show God is unnecessary to explain the world are themselves assuming a monotheistic view of reality in assuming that there is a unified theory for everything. He doesn't mention Hawking or his book by name, and his immediate target is string theory, but the broader implications seem pretty clear.

Have we identified another instance of atheists having to assume the Christian worldview in order to refute it?
Gradually, it became clear to me that scientists — and seekers of perfection from all walks of life — have been courting the wrong muse. Neither symmetry nor perfection should be our guiding principle, as they have been for millennia.

We don't have to look for the mind of God in Nature and try to express it through our equations. Imperfect Nature has plenty to offer, if we are willing to embrace its message.

The search for an all-embracing theory of Nature inspired by beauty and perfection is misguided, rooted in the monotheistic culture that has for so long dominated Western thought.

Superstring theory and the widespread belief that it represents the truth of all existence, is the scientific equivalent of a Jewish-Christian-Muslim God that designed the cosmos, a theory based on mathematical symmetry as an expression of Nature's perfection. Even if God is hidden from the equations (and He certainly is), the mythic equivalent of "all is one" persists.

The time has come to shift our focus. A new way of thinking about the natural world is emerging that emphasizes change and transformation rather than stasis and perfection.

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Do more bad education ideas add up to a good one?

President Obama wants to improve education in America by extending the school year, which is sort of like improving a bad recipe by adding more of the same ingredients.

Books that didn't even get a chance to be banned

It's Banned Books Week again: You know, the week where we talk about all of the books religious parents have objected to in schools, but where we ignore the fact that religious books were prevented from making it into schools in the first place?

In fact, I did a search in the "Books Banned and Challenged 2008-2009," for the word "Bible," but it didn't turn up anything.

Funny how that works.

Science and philosophy

One of the frequent commenters on this blog has been pestering me for an answer to one of his questions that resulted from my post on Stephen Hawking's new book, some of the public pronouncement from which I critiqued in an earlier post.

Here is Singring:
Which is the path to truth? Philosophy or science? That is exactly the issue we are wrestling with at this very moment!

Hawkings says: 'Science is all I need to give me the ultimate truth at the root of the universe!'

You say: 'Oh no it isn't!'

Yet so far you have done nothing more than ASSERT that it isn't. So why should I even consider the possibility that what science can and cannot answer is a philosophical question?

As fa[r] as I can tell, science is the ONLY way we are able to arive at truth (as far as we can tell at the moment).

You disagree. But WHY? What argument can you possibly present that will give me or anyone else a good reason to believe that we need anything OTHER than science (philosophy, for example) to account for everything there is?
Now first of all, Singring simply assumes that I have the burden of proof here. It was, after all, Hawking who implies that science can explain why there is something rather than nothing. Why is the burden of proof on me to disprove him? He doesn't have prove his original assertion?

But let's just go along with Singring here. Science is the only way we are able to arrive at truth. How do we determine whether that statement is true? By science? Maybe Singring could enlighten us on how that can be done.

Then he turns right around and asks for an argument that will give him good reason to believe that we need "anything other than science." Wait, I thought science was the only avenue to truth? If that's the case, then why does he want an argument? What good would an argument do to show that my statement is true if only science can yield truth? Shouldn't he want an experiment, or a hypothesis, or a theory, or empirical evidence?

What good would an argument do? Giving him an argument would be engaging in logic, and logic is a branch of philosophy. What does he want that for?

Can he have much confidence in his belief that science is the only avenue to truth if the only way he can think of to determine whether that belief is true is to resort to philosophy?

Monday, September 27, 2010

What atheists worry about

Biologist Jerry Coyne expresses his extreme discomfort that National Institutes for Health director Francis Collins is praying for famed atheist Christopher Hitchens, who is now undergoing treatment for cancer. "I’m not sure what this means," says Coyne, "but I hope Collins isn’t praying for Hitch to see the light and ask God for wisdom."

This is apparently what keeps atheists awake at night.

Now I'm wondering why Coyne, who professes to think that prayer doesn't have any effect, would think that there would be negative effect to Collin's prayer.

Public employee benefit plans need to be the same as everyone else's

The next time you hear the latest news on some government pension plan that is facing a multi-million dollar shortfall and threatening the benefits for those who are scheduled to retire, ask yourself this question: "Do I have a defined benefit plan where I work?"

Public employees and many unions have defined benefit plans, which give beneficiaries a set amount on retirement. It's a pretty cushy deal, really. The rest of have to make due with defined contribution plans, like 401Ks, which have a set contribution, but not a set benefit. This is what the vast majority of private businesses use. By definition they cannot have a shortfall, since the benefit is always based on whatever the value of the account is at retirement.

Other than mostly union plans, private companies began moving away from defined benefit plans many years ago, and no they have been superseded by defined contribution plans.

Employees love defined benefit plans, of course, since their benefits are a guaranteed amount. But the thing about it is that when a recession comes along, the actuarial calculations go out the window, and the amount in the plan is not enough meet the guaranteed benefits. So what happens? There are only two possibilities:
  1. Public employees don't get benefits they were guaranteed
  2. The government entity that guaranteed the benefits has to spend more public money making up the gap
Since employees have been guaranteed the money, 1. can't happen, which means that the rest of us who are on defined contribution plans have to belly up for it through our taxes. This is an absolutely absurd situation.

States like Kentucky need to pass laws forcing their executive branches to phase out defined benefit plans and institute the same kind of defined contribution plans everybody else is using.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Don't Know Much About G. K. Chesterton

When a great thinker is misunderstood, the first question to ask is whether it is the fault of the great thinker or the fault of those who misunderstand him. Austin Bramwell has recently attempted to take stock of Chesterton's philosophical equipment and finds him lacking. He launched this attack from a blog called the "League of Ordinary Gentleman." That someone from such a society might not appreciate the gifts of such an extraordinary person may just go without saying and may, in fact, answer our first question.

The charge Bramwell brings against Chesterton is the oldest and most common charge against him: that his rhetorical prowess outstripped his intellectual capabilities. The attack on Chesterton usually takes this form: "Well, he's a terribly clever writer, but underneath all the clever paradox, there really isn't much substance."

The problem with this charge is that it is always brought by those whose intellectual powers are not, shall we say, in the same league as the person they're criticizing. The other problem is that the people who say that, while his literary gifts are prodigious, Chesterton is no philosopher are people who it is not clear are terribly qualified themselves to make such a judgment in the first place. But the most common problem is that those who criticize Chesterton really don't understand much of what he said, and they build their whole critique on their misunderstandings.

This is most certainly the case with Bramwell. If you're going to offer a serious assessment of a thinker, the first thing to get right is what the thinker is actually saying, and Bramwell clearly hasn't figured this out.

I became aware of Bramwell's article, now some two weeks old, from reading Ross Douthat's defense this last week of Chesterton against Bramwell's charges. Unfortunately, Douthat's defense doesn't do enough justice to Chesterton's capabilities. He comes close to stipulating that Bramwell is right: Chesterton is a philosophical lightweight--but isn't he clever? I don't think he goes quite that far, but he gives too much away. I think his point is that Chesterton is not a systematic professional philosopher, but he could have gone a lot further in extolling Chesterton's virtues as a philosophical thinker, virtues that are manifold.

If I'm ever charged with a serious philosophical offense, I'm probably finding someone else to take my case. Douthat doesn't help matters by quoting another ostensible defense by Michael Brenden Dougherty, who tries to get Chesterton off on the philosophical equivalent of manslaughter: he had no intention of practicing philosophy; he was just trying to be a good journalist, and any ideas he may have harmed the process were just accidental.

Douthat quotes Dougherty, who makes, says Douthat, "precisely the right point" about this criticism:
But Chesterton is rather a publicist and a polemicist on behalf of those ideals. He is not joining some great conversation with Don Scotus, Aristotle, and Nietszche. Rather he is in a constant scrum with Bertrand Russell, Benjamin Kidd, Cecil Rhodes, H.G. Wells, Sidney Webb, Edward Carpenter, W.T. Stead, etc. … If Chesterton were alive today a similar list would be something like, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Karen Armstrong … Marty Peretz, Stephen Hawking, and Jonathan Chait.
With friends like this they might as well just give Chesterton a blindfold and a cigarette and get it over with.

Chesterton's case files show him being accused of this crime from the very beginning of his literary career, and the chief bit of evidence against him is cited over and over again: paradox. "[B]y the time I’ve unraveled one of those Chestertonian paradoxes," says Bramwell, "not only do I have a headache, but I also don’t feel that I’ve come away with a single lasting idea." It's as if he had heard the criticism before and thought it might be more true if repeated one more time.

At least his early critics said it more artfully. One of them is cited by his earliest and best biographer, Masie Ward:
Paradox should be used like onions to season the salad. Mr. Chesterton's salad is all onions. Paradox has been defined as "truth standing on its head to attract attention." Mr. Chesterton makes truth cut her throat to attract attention.
As if feeling his own misunderstanding of Chesterton to be insufficiently deep, Bramwell finds someone else whose misunderstanding goes even deeper: Maurice Cowley, whom he quotes as follows:
Chesterton had little talent for philosophical, theological or theoretical statement. All he had — though he had this to the point of genius — was a talent for compressing long arguments into short paradoxes which left the reader to suggest the application for himself.
To call this utter nonsense is to give it entirely too much credit. It is a measure of mediocre minds that they would be looking straight at the very thing behind which Chesterton's genius lay and pronounce that it was the proof he didn't have any.

The great early 20th century playwright George Bernard Shaw harshly criticized Chesterton for associating himself so closely with Hillaire Belloc, a prominent early 20th century historian, writer and Catholic apologist. Shaw thought Belloc a mean intellect compared to Chesterton, and he referred to their close literary association as the "Chesterbelloc," a creature with a small upper body (Belloc's portion of the beast) and a huge behind (Chesterton's portion). Belloc was no intellectual slouch, but some credence was given to Shaw's assessment of Belloc when the latter wrote On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters, in which Belloc almost completely ignores this aspect of Chesterton's thought in favor of arguing for Chesterton's literary position. "Nothing is more suggestive about Chesterton's use of paradox," said literary critic Hugh Kenner, "than the fact that Belloc barely noticed it."

Shaw, no mediocre mind himself, had properly taken Chesterton's measure and called him "a man of colossal genius."

When Ward went to write the biography that casts a shadow over all later biographies of Chesterton, she makes a point in regard to his use of paradox that later defenders of Chesterton took to a higher level:
What it amounted to was roughly this: paradox must be of the nature of things because of God's infinity and the limitations of the world and of man's mind. To us limited beings God can express his idea only in fragments. We can bring together apparent contradictions in those fragments whereby a great truth is suggested. If we do this in a sudden and incongruous manner we startle the unprepared and arouse the cry of paradox. But if we do not do it we will miss a great deal of truth.
When people who are unaccustomed to literary expression encounter it--when they can't fit it into their rationalistic categories and assign it a number--they throw up their hands and declare it meaningless. It is never a good idea, Chesterton once quipped, to give a poem "to a calculating boy." Real literary minds have had an assessment of Chesterton far different from his recent critics--and defenders.

Kenner, one of the 2oth century's great literary critics and a man whom Christopher Lehmann-Haupt once called America's "foremost commentator on literary modernism," wrote his first book on Chesterton--and it was devoted to just this aspect of Chesterton's thought. Those who are puzzled by Chesterton's paradoxes ought to read it.

In his Paradox in Chesterton, Kenner sees at the heart of Chesterton's paradoxes St. Thomas Aquinas' doctrine of analogy. "His especial gift," he says, "was his metaphysical intuition of being; his especial triumph was his exploitation of paradox to embody that intuition."
The heart of Chesterton's thinking and writing is his perception and use of paradox; yet because, as Belloc observed, it satisfies men for the wrong reason, it has been a principal hindrance to his rapid acceptance as an important thinker and writer. What appears to be superficial playing is really an intense plumbing among the mysterious roots of being and language; but in a sort of exhausted relief that this profound but disturbing visionary need not be read profoundly, his critics have neglected the intensity and enjoyed only the play ... Chesterton wrote as he did because he saw, not because he wanted to create a stir.
If Kenner has a fault, it is that, while properly assessing Chesterton's as a philosophical thinker, he undervalues him as a literary artist. Garry Wills, however, brings some balance to Kenner who sees Chesterton as only a non-systematic philosopher, and to Belloc, who sees him only as a Christian rhetor. In his Chesterton: Man and Mask (republished in recent years as, simply, Chesterton), Wills too realizes Chesterton's grounding in Thomistic thinking, but also gives him due recognition as a rhetorical and poetic artist. "Chesterton pursued the sophistries and anomolies of mere contradiction," says Wills, "as he upheld the paradoxes of authentic mystery."

This is an assessment that even his defenders, probably oblivious to the whole world of Aristotelian and Thomist thought, are unaware of: "Next to a considered book of philosophy," Dougherty remarks, trying to lower the philosophical expectations Chesterton should be required to meet, "Chesterton seems a little smug." Really? One of the interesting things about this criticism is how often it is leveled by philosophical novices--and how often it is contradicted by real philosophers.

Chesterton's bona fides as a philosophical thinker are perhaps no better shown than in his book St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox. He rapidly dictated the first half of the book to his secretary Dorothy Collins, the had her go get some books on "Tommy," which, when she brought them back, he leafed through quickly, threw on the floor as he proceeded to dictate the rest of the book. It was published from Collin's untouched dictation. The result?

Anton Pegis, a prominent Thomist philosopher, called the book "the best introduction to the mind and heart of the Angelic Doctor." And then there is Etienne Gilson.

"Chesterton makes one despair," said Gilson, who, with the possible exception of Jacques Maritain was considered the greatest Thomistic philosopher of modern times. "I have been studying St. Thomas all my life and I could never have written such a book." Gilson addressed the significance of Chesterton's book, as well as the canard about his philosophical shallowness in blunt terms:
I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas. Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement. Everybody will no doubt admit that it is a "clever" book, but the few readers who have spent twenty or thirty years in studying St. Thomas Aquinas, and who, perhaps, have themselves published two or three volumes on the subject, cannot fail to perceive that the so-called "wit" of Chesterton has put their scholarship to shame. He has guessed all that which they had tried to demonstrate, and he has said all that which they were more or less clumsily attempting to express in academic formulas. Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed; he was deep because he was right; and he could not help being right; but he could not either help being modest and charitable, so he left it to those who could understand him to know that he was right, and deep; to others, he apologized for being right, and he made up for being deep by being witty. That is all they can see of him.
This is what actual philosophers think of Chesterton, but Bramwell can't see it. "He creates the feeling of philosophical achievement without the reality." Unfortunately that comment creates the feeling that the author has some understanding of the figure he is criticizing without the reality.

Nor can Bramwell see what everyone gets so excited about in his Christian apologetics, particularly as it manifests itself in Chesterton's Orthodoxy. The book Gilson calls "the best piece of apologetic the century has produced" doesn't impress Bramwell at all: "As a record of how Chesterton came to Christianity, Orthodoxy is completely unpersuasive." Of course, that might have to do with the fact that that wasn't really Chesterton's point.

Once again, a basic understanding of what one is criticizing seems absent. He quotes Cowley to again bolster his case:
In Orthodoxy, Chesterton’s chief tactical point was that the main Christian dogmas were more liberal in their implications than the self-consciously liberal dogmas by which they were assualted. . . . This was not put very well. But it was connected with a harder idea — that of Christianity as the “slash of the sword” which would destroy natural religion, the Arnoldian compromise, and the Inner Light, and establish that the world was a good deal less “regular” than it looked. It was to a world where “life” was “unreasonable” and superstition abounding, and where “earthquakes of emotion” could be unloosed about a word that Christian vigilance was presented as the response.
This is so utterly and completely at odds with Chesterton's real purpose in the book that it is hard to know how to answer it other than to mutely point at the book and try to use some hand signals (since Chesterton's actual words don't seem to have much impact) to indicate that even a cursory reading would dispel such confused nonsense. If a critic doesn't even know what the purpose of a thing is, it's kind of hard for him to assess whether that purpose has been accomplished.

Chesterton's dual purpose in Orthodoxy is to use the analogy of sanity to argue that the intellectually dis-integrated character of modern philosophies betrays all the characteristic symptoms of insanity, while the balanced worldview of Christianity uniquely marks it out as the only whole and comprehensive view of the world. In the second part of the book, he argues that the odd and unlikely shape of Christian doctrine fits the problems of the world as perfectly as a key fits a lock. That's it--right there in two sentences. And anyone who knows the book can see pretty clearly that this is its purpose. That Bramwell and the expert witness he calls to the stand do not even know this is a testament to their ignorance of what they criticize.

Finally, Bramwell makes a statement that simply defies any rational interpretation for anyone who knows anything about Chesterton:
... Chesterton is an irrationalist. H[e] seeks to paralyze the intellect in order to make room for awe. Admittedly, there can be no religion without awe (at least I think that’s right). Still, if Cowling is right, Chesterton opposes the traditions of natural theology and faith seeking understanding. His Christianity tries to keep reason permanently cabined.
I have read this paragraph over several times and I can only conjecture that there is some other writer out there with the name of "Chesterton," and we are all confused, thinking that it is G. K. Bramwell is talking about when in fact it is some other thinker. How else can you explain this remark?

All you have to do is read "The Ethics of Elfland," the fourth chapter in Orthodoxy and such a criticism becomes entirely inexplicable. That chapter from Orthodoxy was published alongside essays by Albert Einstin, Charles Darwin, and Stephen J. Gould in Martin Gardner's Great Essays in Science. In fact, before his death earlier this year, Gardner had written a book of collected essays on Chesterton, although I have not seen that it has been published. Bramwell claims to have read Orthodoxy. Did his copy not contain this chapter? Was his mind wandering when he read it? It wouldn't matter: the whole book is testimony against it.

I think maybe the problem here is twofold: First, some people are simply unaccustomed to poetic expression. Chesterton is a very literary writer, as many of the journalists of the time were. In fact, many great literary figures (Shaw is an example) frequently wrote for the daily papers. It is perhaps understandable that those of us who read today's etiolated version of the journalistic art have a hard time understanding those who wrote in a more poetically sophisticated age.

Second, those who have little understanding of the philosophy Chesterton was propounding--albeit in a very unsystematic way--can perhaps be excused for completely missing it. Chesterton's critics don't think there is anything behind his paradoxes not because there is nothing behind his paradoxes, but because they don't understand the philosophy behind his paradoxes. The irony is that they wouldn't understand the philosophy without the paradox any better than they understand it with the paradox.

I'm sure that Bramwell is more than an ordinary gentleman, but he is clearly out of his league.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

In Response to the Vulgar Moralist: Moral Psychology Is Not Moral Philosophy

The Vulgar Moralist has weighed in on the ongoing debate concerning the rational justification for morality. His response contains the same basic errors as those that have been advanced in the comments section on this blog. To clarify the issues, I will address them systematically.

I. The Category Mistake: Moral Psychology Is Not Moral Philosophy

The Vulgar Moralist remarks that
[t]he primacy of genetics and emotions in morality is somewhat controversial – but at this late hour, not all that much. On the one side stands 2,500 years of moral philosophy exalting the 'rational life'; on the other, a growing body of research." Thus, the moral philosophy that exalts the rational life stands in opposition to the body of research that has illuminated the emotional and genetic factors that effect the moral choices of human beings.
This opposition is founded upon a category mistake. The question of why people believe in certain moral principles belongs do the discipline of moral psychology; the question whether those moral principles are true belongs to moral philosophy. Obviously people can believe in true things for false reasons: just because one's belief that Caesar existed is predicated upon the belief that the television show "Rome" is a documentary does not make the historical arguments any less valid. Further, people often believe in true things on the basis of beliefs that don't have much to do with the truth or falsity of the subject: people might believe in relativity theory because Stephan Hawking believes in it, but the fact that Hawking has an opinion on the subject doesn't bear on the truth or falsity of relativity theory. The process of evaluating the truths of beliefs is distinct from the process of evaluating how different people come to their beliefs.

The Vulgar Moralist's category mistake is, therefore, at the same time an ad hominem argument, because it focuses on the person making an argument in a way that ignores the argument itself.

II. Nature and Teleology

The Vulgar Moralist answers the question of whether human nature negates teleology by saying that
[g]rounding morality in human nature strips away any purpose inherent to the world: but not, let it be noted, human purpose while acting in the world. Every morality is erected on ideals. Every ideal is an unattainable model of behavior. Every good person is inching toward an ideal vision of himself: that person-as-he-could-be.
There are a few obvious problems with this answer. The assertion that "[e]very morality is erected on ideals" is vague enough that it doesn't mean much of anything. Or again, the assertion that "[e]very ideal is an unattainable model of behavior" is manifestly false: many ideals (such as the ideal that people ought not murder each other) are more attained than not.

The more fundamental problem appears to be an unfamiliarity with what an Aristotelian means by nature. As I've written about before, "nature" for an Aristotelian does not mean primarily the picture we get from the physical sciences, nor the geographic locations that are relatively free from human dominion. Nature is the intrinsic principle of motion in a thing (as I've also written about before). A tree is natural while a wooden statute is not, because the wooden statue does not move itself from within -- what form it has is the result of external force -- whereas the tree does move itself.

This internal principle of motion strives towards realizing the form proper to the thing. A tree, provided it has all the nutrients and sunlight it needs, will of its own accord grow and blossom. Human beings too have an internal principle of motion: no one imposes growth on them from without. But human beings additionally possess the capacity of reason, the ability to direct their activity towards those things perceived as desirable. The inquiry into what constitutes human flourishing and what activities tend toward this flourishing is the science of ethics proper.

III. Final Thoughts

Several aspects of the Vulgar Moralist's arguments are particularly outlandish. For instance, the Vulgar Moralist argues:
In a liberal democracy, there will always be a plurality of contradictory religious beliefs, and standing on one to the exclusion of the others – that is, absolutely and uncontingently – will eliminate all common ground.
This isn't even plausible prima facie. There are plenty of examples of generally accepted moral propositions: most people in the United States believe that murder, for example, is wrong. Further, if a certain political system disintegrates a society's moral fabric, that seems a good reason to reject it as a bad political system. If liberal democracy creates moral chaos, then down with liberal democracy.

And finally, when one boldly declares that X is without a rational basis, then one ought at least to deal substantively with the best argument for the rational basis of X. For example, if I argue that Godel's theorem is indemonstrable by mathematical methods, I had better demonstrate that I have a grasp of the basic methods of mathematics, of the theorem itself, and of the arguments surrounding it. Or if I assert that no evidence exists that Al-Queda is involved with terrorism, I ought at least deal with the arguments for the other side. Likewise, when the Vulgar Moralist declares that no rational basis for morality exists, one would expect that he engage seriously and substantively with the arguments to the contrary.

Conway must know he's in trouble

In the U. S. Senate race in Kentucky between Rand Paul and Jack Conway it is being reported that the Conway has agreed to debate Paul on Fox News. Polls show Paul ahead by a significant margin, and the fact that Conway is agreeing to meet Paul in his own natural backyard looks like a sign that Conway's own polling must be showing the same thing.

You don't fight on the enemy's ground unless you have no choice.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A pro-life supporter of Obama gets his 30 pieces of silver

Lydia McGrew at "Extra Thoughts" gets the prize for takedown of the month (year?) for her reaction to finding out that an ardent Catholic pro-lifer who supported Barack Obama has gotten his temporal (but not eternal) reward.

Monday, September 20, 2010

UK Rankings down, Lee Todd's salary up

My friend Bob the Economist (Robert Martin, emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College) slamming the ridiculous salary raise for outgoing University of Kentucky President Lee Todd:
In a tone-deaf moment, the UK governing board, on the occasion of President Lee T. Todd Jr.'s retirement, decided to increase his total compensation for his last year to $825,000.

A firestorm of anger and outrage has been burning over excessive executive compensation for the last two years, and here is the UK board shoveling Kentucky coal on to the fire. Further, can it be true that board members have not read nor heard about the Goldwater Institute's report? If not, why are they serving on UK's board?

The Herald-Leader quotes trustees who say they cannot hire a new president unless they significantly increase compensation. Interim board chairman Billy Joe Miles said the president's job is more important than the governor's job (apparently not more important than the basketball coach's, however).

Since this new compensation is about double what the U.S. president makes, it means being UK president is more important than being president of the United States.
See this is how it works: you head a university that says it is going to become a "top 20" research university but instead goes down in the rankings, and then increase the presidents salary by 50 percent.

Can Todd take the trustees with him when he leaves? Please?

More cheers than jeers in Pope's British visit

Pope Benedict's visit to Britain seems to have defied expectations. From all of the bluster in the media and from some anti-clerical groups (is there really a distinction to be made there?), you would have expected mass protests against the Pontiff. What you got instead were larger than expected crowds of supportive Brits who, despite discouragement from the police, showed up in large numbers at the Pope's stops and along his travel route.

The protests, on the other hand, were puny in comparison. And where was Richard Dawkins anyway? He was going to lead all of these angry atheists and call for the Pope to be arrested. I hope he didn't get arrested in the process.

What struck me while watching some of the coverage was the sense of history in the whole thing. The first Pope ever to visit Westminister Cathedral walking by the tombs of Britain's kings and queens, as well as the graves of figures such as Dickens, Robert Browning, and Geoffrey Chaucer. And the visit by the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to the tomb of Edward the Confessor was astounding in its historical significance.

“You have spoken to a nation of six million Catholics, but you have been heard by a nation of over 60 million citizens,” Cameron said.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Pope Benedict's speech before the British Parliament today

Mr Speaker,

Thank you for your words of welcome on behalf of this distinguished gathering. As I address you, I am conscious of the privilege afforded me to speak to the British people and their representatives in Westminster Hall, a building of unique significance in the civil and political history of the people of these islands. Allow me also to express my esteem for the Parliament which has existed on this site for centuries and which has had such a profound influence on the development of participative government among the nations, especially in the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world at large. Your common law tradition serves as the basis of legal systems in many parts of the world, and your particular vision of the respective rights and duties of the state and the individual, and of the separation of powers, remains an inspiration to many across the globe.

As I speak to you in this historic setting, I think of the countless men and women down the centuries who have played their part in the momentous events that have taken place within these walls and have shaped the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides. In particular, I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose "good servant" he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.

This country’s Parliamentary tradition owes much to the national instinct for moderation, to the desire to achieve a genuine balance between the legitimate claims of government and the rights of those subject to it. While decisive steps have been taken at several points in your history to place limits on the exercise of power, the nation’s political institutions have been able to evolve with a remarkable degree of stability. In the process, Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law. While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.

And yet the fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More’s trial continue to present themselves in ever-changing terms as new social conditions emerge. Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident - herein lies the real challenge for democracy.

The inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems has been illustrated all too clearly by the recent global financial crisis. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world. Just as "every economic decision has a moral consequence" (Caritas in Veritate, 37), so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore. A positive illustration of this is found in one of the British Parliament’s particularly notable achievements – the abolition of the slave trade. The campaign that led to this landmark legislation was built upon firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law, and it has made a contribution to civilization of which this nation may be justly proud.

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This "corrective" role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.

Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.

Your readiness to do so is already implied in the unprecedented invitation extended to me today. And it finds expression in the fields of concern in which your Government has been engaged with the Holy See. In the area of peace, there have been exchanges regarding the elaboration of an international arms trade treaty; regarding human rights, the Holy See and the United Kingdom have welcomed the spread of democracy, especially in the last sixty-five years; in the field of development, there has been collaboration on debt relief, fair trade and financing for development, particularly through the International Finance Facility, the International Immunization Bond, and the Advanced Market Commitment. The Holy See also looks forward to exploring with the United Kingdom new ways to promote environmental responsibility, to the benefit of all.

I also note that the present Government has committed the United Kingdom to devoting 0.7% of national income to development aid by 2013. In recent years it has been encouraging to witness the positive signs of a worldwide growth in solidarity towards the poor. But to turn this solidarity into effective action calls for fresh thinking that will improve life conditions in many important areas, such as food production, clean water, job creation, education, support to families, especially migrants, and basic healthcare. Where human lives are concerned, time is always short: yet the world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed "too big to fail". Surely the integral human development of the world’s peoples is no less important: here is an enterprise, worthy of the world’s attention, that is truly "too big to fail".

This overview of recent cooperation between the United Kingdom and the Holy See illustrates well how much progress has been made, in the years that have passed since the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations, in promoting throughout the world the many core values that we share. I hope and pray that this relationship will continue to bear fruit, and that it will be mirrored in a growing acceptance of the need for dialogue and respect at every level of society between the world of reason and the world of faith. I am convinced that, within this country too, there are many areas in which the Church and the public authorities can work together for the good of citizens, in harmony with Britain’s long-standing tradition. For such cooperation to be possible, religious bodies – including institutions linked to the Catholic Church – need to be free to act in accordance with their own principles and specific convictions based upon the faith and the official teaching of the Church. In this way, such basic rights as religious freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of association are guaranteed. The angels looking down on us from the magnificent ceiling of this ancient Hall remind us of the long tradition from which British Parliamentary democracy has evolved. They remind us that God is constantly watching over us to guide and protect us. And they summon us to acknowledge the vital contribution that religious belief has made and can continue to make to the life of the nation.

Mr Speaker, I thank you once again for this opportunity briefly to address this distinguished audience. Let me assure you and the Lord Speaker of my continued good wishes and prayers for you and for the fruitful work of both Houses of this ancient Parliament. Thank you and God bless you all!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The selective indignation of the anti-Catholic media

The Pope's visits England is engendering the predictable criticism of the Catholic Church. All those people who've heard the reports, many of them mistaken or exaggerated (largely because they have done little research beyond reading the popular press accounts largely written by people with the same problem), about the priest sex abuse scandal. Many of them lay the blame at Pope Benedict's feet when not only has he been the first to come out and take the blame for it, but, in fact, he has been the one who's been trying to clean up the mess.

But a large part of what makes the criticism so self-serving and disingenuous is that while children are safer in the Catholic Church than virtually any other institution, the abuses that endemic in other institutions are virtually ignored.

Here is George Weigel, writing in First Things last may:
The sexual and physical abuse of children and young people is a global plague; its manifestations run the gamut from fondling by teachers to rape by uncles to kidnapping-and-sex-trafficking. In the United States alone, there are reportedly some 39 million victims of childhood sexual abuse. Forty to sixty percent were abused by family members, including stepfathers and live-in boyfriends of a child’s mother—thus suggesting that abused children are the principal victims of the sexual revolution, the breakdown of marriage, and the hook-up culture. Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft reports that 6-10 percent of public school students have been molested in recent years—some 290,000 between 1991 and 2000. According to other recent studies, 2 percent of sex abuse offenders were Catholic priests—a phenomenon that spiked between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s but seems to have virtually disappeared (six credible cases of clerical sexual abuse in 2009 were reported in the U.S. bishops’ annual audit, in a Church of some 65,000,000 members).

Yet in a pattern exemplifying the dog’s behavior in Proverbs 26:11, the sexual abuse story in the global media is almost entirely a Catholic story, in which the Catholic Church is portrayed as the epicenter of the sexual abuse of the young, with hints of an ecclesiastical criminal conspiracy involving sexual predators whose predations continue today. That the vast majority of the abuse cases in the United States took place decades ago is of no consequence to this story line. For the narrative that has been constructed is often less about the protection of the young (for whom the Catholic Church is, by empirical measure, the safest environment for young people in America today) than it is about taking the Church down—and, eventually, out, both financially and as a credible voice in the public debate over public policy. For if the Church is a global criminal conspiracy of sexual abusers and their protectors, then the Catholic Church has no claim to a place at the table of public moral argument.
Read the rest here.

The Limits of Science

Anthony Gottlieb on the limits of science from Intelligent Life Magazine:

Good sense is the most fairly distributed commodity in the world, Descartes once quipped, because nobody thinks he needs any more of it than he already has. A neat illustration of the fact that gullibility seems to be a disease of other people was provided by Martin Gardner, a great American debunker of pseudoscience, who died this year. In the second edition of his “Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science” (1957), Gardner reported that most of the irate letters he received in response to the first edition criticised only one of its 26 chapters and found the rest to be fine. Needless to say, readers disagreed about which chapter was the faulty one. Homeopaths objected to the treatment meted out to themselves, but thought that the exposé of chiropractors was spot on, and vice versa.

No group of believers has more reason to be sure of its own good sense than today’s professional scientists. There is, or should be, no mystery about why it is always more rational to believe in science than in anything else, because this is true merely by definition. What makes a method of enquiry count as scientific is not that it employs microscopes, rats, computers or people in stained white coats, but that it seeks to test itself at every turn. If a method is as rigorous and cautious as it can be, it counts as good science; if it isn’t, it doesn’t. Yet this fact sets a puzzle. If science is careful scepticism writ large, shouldn’t a scientific cast of mind require one to be sceptical of science itself?

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Five things to expect when the Pope visits England

I suppose it is too much to ask that the cultural barbarians now at the gates mind their manners. I guess it would sort of defeat the purpose of being a cultural barbarian. And just in case you were wondering what the purpose of cultural barbarism is, I'll just pause to point out that it is to bring down Western civilization by opposing anything that might contribute to preserving it.

One of these things, of course, is Christianity, and the primary species of Christianity is Catholicism.

Here is Philip Lawler on five things to expect when the Pope visits England.

HT: Insight Scoop

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Failure of Enlightenment Morality, Part CLVII

Adam Gurri has another interesting post on the question of how you can justify morality. He argues against those who believe that in order to have a coherent view of morality, you must believe in God:
They [the people who say this] assume that the existence of God and of morality are logically linked to one another, that morality requires a "bases" or justification of some sort which only God can properly fill the role of ... Belief in the existence of right and wrong and belief in the existence of the divine are two entirely logically distinct concepts ... As a nonrationalist, I see no logical inconsistency in the fact that I don't believe in a divinity but do believe in morality. Nor do I see any logical consistency with any of the other combinations of beliefs on those two topics.
But then he says that he has a problem with the application of reason to the question at all:
They assume that human beliefs are or ought to be logically consistent ... In fact, logic is irrelevant to whether or not I believe in either God or morality. Belief is not arrived at through reason. This isn't a bad thing. In fact, it is impossible for logic to give us a reason to believe in anything.
I'm not sure I understand exactly what he is saying here in regard to the role of reason in moral discourse. If logic is "irrelevant to whether or not I believe in either God or morality," then why should anyone find his point that there is "no logical inconsistency in the fact that I don't believe in a divinity but do believe in morality" persuasive? If logic is not operative in the discussion of the relation between God and morality, then why is the absence of logical inconsistency in a position on this relation commendable?

I agree that "any reason for believing must begin with some non-logical premise," but only because everything must begin with some non-logical premise, including logic itself, which is founded on non-logical foundations. The law of contradiction, for example cannot itself be proven without employing what it is trying to prove. This is the whole idea behind first principles: there are some things you have to accept as axiomatic in order to think at all. But to conclude from this that you can't use reason to resolve important problems is what Chesterton called the "suicide of thought." If logical consistency is not to be the arbiter of whether one's position is a good one or not--in ethics or anything else--then what is? In fact, Gurri employs it to defend his position on morality--even if his position is that logical consistency doesn't matter.

He says that morality is "a part of human nature." I don't see how this addresses the problem of how any moral statement can be considered authoritative over human behavior. On the other hand, I know he has written about his dependence on Hume and Adam Smith. I suspect that Hume's replacement of reason as the relevant feature of human nature with the passions is what is lurking in the background here: morality is what we feel to be right. In taking this position, he seems to be counting on the existence of some set of perennial sentiments that characterize humans, and there are indeed many sentiments that do seem universal across cultures and throughout history (C. S. Lewis' "tao"). On these the Humean theory is unproblematic. But, of course, there are many other things which we would today consider to be unquestionably good (basic human rights) or unquestionably bad (slavery) that Humean ethics simply cannot make sense of, since people have had different sentiments about them over time.

He has jumped out of the rationalist pan and into the emotivist fire.

There were things that Hume took for granted as being "moral" according to his system of ethics based on the passions--just as Kant took many of the same things for granted in his ethics based on reason, like the sanctity of marriage and of keeping your promises--that came into question later.

I share a dissatisfaction with the common Protestant view of ethics. But that isn't the only theistic view of morality. There is the older, classical view in which there is a recognition that there is a divergence between man-as-he-is and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-telos (i. e., man as he should be), and that the laws or rules of morality consisted in those things that got him from the former to the latter. A classical theist believes that the author of that telos is the best authority to go to to determine what these rules for realizing one's telos are.

The problem with the Humean view of ethics (based on the passions)--as well as the Kantian view (based on the intellect) and the Kierkegaardian view (based on the will)--is ironically tied to the very Protestantism that many secularists now find themselves in conflict with on issues like this. Protestantism, in swallowing the nominalism of William of Occam, denied the existence of a telos inherent in human nature. There is no "man-as-he-should-be"; there is only "man-as-he-is." And therefore there is no need for rules to get him from what he is to what he should be.

Hence the failure of the whole Enlightenment attempt to ground morality in anything whatsoever. As Alastair MacIntyre has eloquently pointed out in his seminal After Virtue, once you have rejected the classical view of inherent nature and purpose in things--and the classical Thomistic synthesis based on it, you foreclose any possibility of any justification of morality at all.

It's all a crap shoot.

Monday, September 13, 2010

John Henry Newman receives his due at last

John Henry Newman is to be beatified by Pope Benedict this weekend during his visit to England. Newman was a model of sound sense and intellectual strength. In books such as The Idea of the University and as well as his collected sermons, Newman manned the barricades of Western civilization in its defense against the cultural barbarians.

And Apologia Pro Vita Sua, his impassioned defense of his conversion to Catholicism that was a response to the overly harsh criticisms of those he left behind in the Anglican Church, was a classic of intellectual apologetics.

You wonder why it took so long.

Hawking's Fatal Conceit: Is science even capable of showing that God is out of a job?

The core problem with Stephen Hawking's claim in his new book The Grand Design that recent scientific advances are getting closer to answering the "big" philosophical questions like "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is that these "big" questions are not scientific questions in the first place. It may sell a lot of books to say what Hawking and his co-author Leonard Mlodinow are saying, but it doesn't make much real sense.

The first clue that we are dealing with two entirely different kinds of questions is the equivocation in terminology that Hawking has employed.

Hawking and Mlodinow have made several claims, one of which is that it is scientifically possible for "universes" to have "appeared spontaneously from nothing." And from this some people have even concluded that the fundamental question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" has been answered.

But for starters, just because you have discovered that something is possible, you have not thereby discovered why it exists. In fact, everything that we encounter in life we know is possible, since it, in fact, exists, and everything that exists must obviously be possible. But we do not by that mere fact know why these things exist: that is another question entirely. Excerpts from Hawking's book seem to indicate that, whether or not he thinks the question has been answered, he does at least think it is scientifically answerable.

The confusion starts with Hawking's use of terminology. What exactly does "universe" mean for Hawking, and what does "nothing" mean when he says it is possible for the universe to come from nothing? Is he using these terms the way philosophers use them--or for that matter the way the rest of us do?

When most of us use the term "universe" we mean it as the Oxford Dictionary defines it: "all existing matter and space considered as a whole; the cosmos." Hawking however uses an equivocation. For him there is more then one universe. So when he says "universe" he does not mean "all existing matter and space considered as a whole; the cosmos." As physicist Stephen Barr, writing in First Things, points out:
For physicists (as opposed to theologians and metaphysicians) the concept of the universe does not refer to “all there is” or the “totality of things.” It refers to a single, self-contained physical structure, comprising a “spacetime manifold” and particles and other things moving around in that spacetime.

... we need to keep in mind the special way in which physicists use the concept of “universe,” for these various universes are really features of a single overarching physical system—call it a “system of universes”.
The second terminological problem has to do with the word "nothing." Does Hawking actually mean "nothing" as the negation of "something"? Does he really mean the absence of any thing, as he must know most of us hear it when he uses the term? Barr again:
The answer is no. First of all, one isn’t starting from “nothing.” The “no-universe state” as meant in these speculative scenarios is not nothing, it is a very definite something: it is one particular quantum state among many of an intricate rule-governed system. This no-universe state has specific properties and potentialities defined by a system of mathematical laws.
Barr uses the analogy of a bank account with no money in it. It is itself empty: it has nothing in it. But the account itself exists, within the existing banking system. So in one sense you could say the account is "nothing" because it has nothing in it. It contains no value. But if, the next day, a thousand dollars is credited to the account, was it something from nothing? And if the bank account is "nothing," then how could it be there to receive the thousand dollars?
Obviously, therefore, the “nothing” that Hawking makes part of his theory of the creation of our universe is not nothing in a metaphysical sense. The “no-universe” of his speculations is like the “no-dollars” in my account. It exists within the framework of a complex overarching system with specific rules. So we can see that, if true, the way of thinking put forward by Hawking does not threaten the classical doctrine of creation out of nothing.

... the cosmological theories put forward by Hawking do not bear upon larger questions that motivate classical views of creation out of nothing. Non-scientists are quick to ask the obvious questions. Why a system obeying quantum mechanics, M-theory, superstring theory, or whatever laws of physics that make scientific speculations possible in the first place? Why not no system at all, with no laws at all, no anything, just blank non-being?

Physics, by its very nature, cannot answer these questions.
For Hawking to equivocate in his use of these terms in relation to how others outside physics use them is not necessarily a problem when he is talking to other physicists, but when he goes before the public and fails to note that he is using them in a different way, it would seem he bears some of the responsibility for the confusion that might ensue--and which, in fact, has ensued. And the problem is made worse when you consider that Hawking himself uses these terms in equivocal ways in his own books. In the excerpts that have been published of his new book, he uses the term one way, and in his book A Brief History of Time, he uses it in quite another.

In fact, Barr points out that Hawking himself once seemed to understand the limitations of physics and understood that, by its very nature, it cannot answer the questions he seems now to think it can, citing this quote from Hawking in Brief History of Time:
The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the question of why there should be a universe for the model to describe.
I think Barr slightly overstates the case here. This quote comes from the conclusion of the book, where you can see the seeds of Hawking's confused view of physics and philosophy. There, Hawking does say that the "why" questions are the province of philosophers, but then he goes on to argue that because philosophers have not been able to keep up with the advances in science and mathematics, physicists--and everyone else--now get to answer philosophical questions. He says, "However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for the philosophers, or anyone else except a few specialists." He then cites Wittgenstein as an example of a philosopher who limited philosophy to analyzing language rather than answering the big questions. "What a comedown," he says, "from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant!"

"Traditionally these are questions for philosophy," says Hawking, "but philosophy is dead."

Huh? In what sense is philosophy "dead"? And how would Hawking know? The only way you could say that philosophy is "dead" is to say either that the questions it asks have been answered or that no one is trying to answer them anymore. But you can't say either. Hawking himself believes that the questions of philosophy are still unanswered, and thinks that physics can answer them. And anyone who thinks there is no one trying to answer them apparently haven't noticed that there are still quite a few philosophers around.

Actually, there is one more way that you can say philosophy is "dead," and it has to do with the philosopher Hawking mentions: Ludwig Wittgenstein. But Wittgenstein didn't "give up" on the big questions, as Hawking seems to imply. Wittgenstein didn't view the role of philosophy as answering the big questions. He believed that there were no big questions to answer--or rather that the big questions were a linguistic illusion. The big questions were simply a product of a linguistic misunderstanding. Once we understood language ("relieved our mental cramp," he called it), we would understand that the big questions were not really questions, and didn't therefore need to be answered.

In other words, many modern philosophers like Wittgenstein simply stopped engaging in philosophy and chose instead to engage in the analysis of language, calling it philosophy. This kind of analytic philosophy certainly dominated professional philosophy in the 20th century, but real philosophy has been reasserting itself for the last 50 years or so and is doing just fine, thank you, despite the declarations of its death by people like Hawking.

In fact, it is interesting that, in arguing that science had become "too technical and mathematical for philosophers," Hawking would cite Wittgenstein, since Wittgenstein would be one of the great counter-examples to his case. Wittgenstein was a formidable mathematician. In fact, he was a crucial influence on Russell & Whitehead's Principia Mathematica, and much of his earlier work concerned the foundations of mathematics. His first three lectures at Cambridge when he was elected professor there (decades after, ironically, he had had a crucial part in founding the first great school of 20th century philosophy, logical positivism, and then single-handedly founding the second great school of 2oth century philosophy, ordinary language philosophy) were on mathematics.

And it doesn't help Hawking's case either to consider that there were philosophers like Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead writing books exploring the fundamental ground of mathematics like the Principia. In fact, the single case of Whitehead is enough to throw much of Hawking's case against philosophy into doubt.

Whitehead, a mathematician who taught and wrote extensively on mathematics, physics, and the philosophy of science, and who was a Fellow of the Royal Society--and who, in fact, was sitting in the audience when the Astronomer Royal announced the results of the experiment on the solar eclipse that showed that light rays bent when they passed by the sun, as Einstein predicted--even articulated a rival theory to Einstein's relativity. It was not successful, but there isn't much of a question that he understand the major discoveries in physics of the 20th century--both relativity and quantum theory.

The question is not whether philosophers have kept up with physics and mathematics over the last 150 years: many of them have. The question is whether physicists like Hawking have kept up with events of 2500 years ago. The great Greek philosophers would have seen right through Hawking's idea that you can answer philosophical questions through the tools of something like modern science.

And this is indeed Hawking's project. Hawking clearly thinks that, when a complete theory of everything is found--the theory that Einstein searched for in vain, the "grand design of the universe," the "single theory that explains everything"--it will, despite the fact that it is still a theory of the physical world, be able to answer philosophical questions. He pointed his readers in this direction at the end of A Brief History of Time:
However, if we do discover a complete theory, ... then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist.
Of course, we can all take part in that discussion already to the extent that we are all philosophers, albeit amateur ones. The question is, can we do it as scientists. He recapitulates the current situation in his new book:
Over twenty years ago I wrote A Brief History of Time, to try to explain where the universe came from, and where it is going. But that book left some important questions unanswered. Why is there a universe--why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why are the laws of nature what they are? Did the universe need a designer and creator?

It was Einstein’s dream to discover the grand design of the universe, a single theory that explains everything. However, physicists in Einstein’s day hadn’t made enough progress in understanding the forces of nature for that to be a realistic goal. And by the time I had begun writing A Brief History of Time, there were still several key advances that had not yet been made that would prevent us from fulfilling Einstein’s dream. But in recent years the development of M-theory, the top-down approach to cosmology, and new observations such as those made by satellites like NASA’s COBE and WMAP, have brought us closer than ever to that single theory, and to being able to answer those deepest of questions. [Emphasis added]
Now one important thing to note here is that he still doesn't claim, as media reports indicate he has--that we have such a theory yet. He only claims we are closer to such a theory. But it is the claim that such findings bear on the big question--which presupposes that it is even possible to gain the answers to philosophical questions through science--that should be (and really is) at the core of the debate. The question isn't whether God is out of a job. The question is whether science could ever even conceivably prove such a thing.

If it can't, if it is by it's nature unsuited to answer such questions, then the fact that we are "closer than ever" to a unified theory of the physical world (the entire thing, not just whichever universe we happen to inhabit) gets us no closer at all to answering these nonscientific, philosophical questions. If it can't answer these questions, then all the attention Hawking is getting to his new book--which contains ideas that are apparently not that new at all ("The idea that Hawking is now touting is not new—in fact, within the fast-moving world of modern physics it is fairly old."--Barr)--is the result not of anything warranting the attention, but simply of hype.

There are plenty of scientists who want to exclude certain views because they fall outside the realm of what they consider science. Religion is a good example of this. They relegate these things (like God) to the meaningless or irrelevant--even though the most they can logically say about them is that they are nonscientific. They want the right to exclude things from the meaningful, but there are others, like Hawking, who want the right to appropriate the nonscientific into the realm of the scientific if it suits their purposes. Answering the "why" questions of philosophy are a perfect example of this.

In one moment, they will say that "why" questions are irrelevant or meaningless because they are not scientific, and in the next moment they are saying--as Hawking now says--they can answer the "why" questions scientifically--that somehow if you can accumulate enough answers to the "what" or the "how" questions, you have the answer to a "why" question. But you can have all the answers to "what" or "how" questions you like, and they will never amount to the answer to a "why" question. It would be like saying you had accumulated enough dogs to amount to a tree, or that you had finally grown enough grass in your yard to constitute a cat.

Sir James Jeans, in his book Physics and Philosophy, pointed out:
The tools of science are observation and experiment; the tools of philosophy are discussion and contemplation. It is still for science to discover the patterns of events, and for philosophy to try to interpret it when found.
Jeans identified three differences between physics and philosophy: differences of language, differences of idiom, and differences in method. They are different, and the difference makes a difference. Science can't refute philosophical ideas; it can only refute other scientific ideas--as his has done time and again and will doubtless continue to do.

It's the kind of thing you would think a smart guy like Hawking would know.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Deepak Chopra: Stephen Hawking validates "everything I knew..."

Deepak Chopra, the New Age guru who engages in physical and emotional healing through meditation, was on Larry King Live last night with the coauthor of Stephen Hawking's new book, The Grand Design, in which the celebrity physicist argues that God is no longer needed to explain the universe:
I found it validating everything I knew from my own experience of wisdom traditions and perennial philosophies ... It's validated everything...
Deepak Chopra and Stephen Hawking. The universe is now in balance.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Would it be bad to be marooned on a desert island if you had all your books?

Living in Tahiti in a house filled with books. That must be what Heaven is like.

William Zinsser, at the American Scholar, writes about having visited James Norman Hall's widow in Tahiti. Hall and Charles Nordhoff had written numerous books of adventure in the South Seas, most notably Mutiny on the Bounty. Zinsser describes Hall's library, which Sarah, his widow, kept after his death, and wonders what will be the consequence for such things in the digital age:

Today I sometimes think of that library, assembled on a faraway speck of land by an American boy from Colfax, Iowa (population 1,749), because no such library will ever be assembled again. The world’s knowledge has been digitized, its literature is fast being Kindled. Does any architect still design a house with a “library”? Does any interior decorator advise a client to decorate a wall with bookshelves? Does any carpenter remember how to build a bookcase?

Book-lined rooms were part of our shared domestic landscape. To walk into a house with books was an unspoken promise of conversation that would jump beyond the events of the day. Brightly colored book jackets, waving for attention, were also good companions, a linear museum of handsome typography and graphic design through the decades.

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

If you're going to be Hawking a theory of the origin on the universe, you better do it right

The New York Times reviews Stephen Hawking's new book, The Grand Design:
The real news about “The Grand Design,” however, isn’t Mr. Hawking’s supposed jettisoning of God, information that will surprise no one who has followed his work closely. The real news about “The Grand Design” is how disappointingly tinny and inelegant it is. The spare and earnest voice that Mr. Hawking employed with such appeal in “A Brief History of Time” has been replaced here by one that is alternately condescending, as if he were Mr. Rogers explaining rain clouds to toddlers, and impenetrable.
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Is Stephen Hawkings argument against creation more valid in any of the other dimensions?

Pierre-Simon Laplace is reputed to have told Napoleon, after the emperor asked why he had not mentioned God in one of his scientific treatises, "I had no need of that hypothesis." Celebrity physicist Stephen Hawking is now being lauded by anti-religious scientists for saying basically the same thing. In a new article in the Wall Street Journal (excerpted from his book released today) Hawking says that it is possible to explain the beginning of the universe without God having created it.

But in order to do this there is a hypothesis Hawking does need: that there are multiple universes.

The argument in Hawking's article is far from lucid, and one assumes that the argument in his book is couched in clearer terms, but he seems to argue that if you assume certain cosmological theories, then we don't need God to explain how the universe got here, since these theories would account for it. We don't need God to explain the universe because we can explain it without God.

But exactly how is this to be done?

No one except physicists should do anything but fear to tread on matters as mathematically complicated as what Hawking only hints at in the Journal article. But he is offering his argument in public, in an organ of opinion directed at the intelligent non-scientific laymen, and therefore we should expect that he has an argument understandable to the public to make.

So let's try to make sense of this--and by the way, I'm perfectly open to correction on this, but it will have to come from someone who states the argument better than Hawking.

As best one can tell, Hawking seems to argue that if you assume there are multiple other universes than our own, then an explanation of how the universe got here without God is possible. And if there is a possible explanation of how the universe got here without God, then we need not bother about God.

What Hawking never explains is why the theory that there are multiple universes is any more rational an explanation than that God created the universe. Nor does he explain why one possibility necessarily excludes the other.

Let's grant him for the sake of argument that multiverse theory is a possible explanation. Why is it a better explanation than the God hypothesis, if the God hypothesis is also a possible explanation? Why choose the former over the latter? John Lennox makes somewhat the same point:

He asks us to choose between God and the laws of physics, as if they were necessarily in mutual conflict.

But contrary to what Hawking claims, physical laws can never provide a complete explanation of the universe. Laws themselves do not create anything, they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions.

What Hawking appears to have done is to confuse law with agency. His call on us to choose between God and physics is a bit like someone demanding that we choose between aeronautical engineer Sir Frank Whittle and the laws of physics to explain the jet engine.

In other circumstances we could invoke Occam's Razor, a popular scientific principle: that "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity." The principle is stated more simply as the idea that the simplest theory is the best one. But if you want to make the argument that multiverse theory is more simple than the God hypothesis, then you're going to have to explain why the God hypothesis is simple enough to be readily understandable to the general public, whereas multiverse theory is so complicated that only trained physicists seem to really understand it--and even that is somewhat questionable, since it would require an understanding of multiverse theory to verify whether anyone else does, in fact, properly understands it.

So the first problem with Hawking's conclusion--that God is not required to explain the universe--is that Hawking so far is having a hard time explaining himself. If Hawking is going to convince the rest of us that he can explain the universe, then he should at least be able to explain the theories he says explain the universe, and he hasn't sufficiently done that yet (at least not in the public pronouncements he has so far made. Maybe the book can accomplish this).

The second problem is that, as we have said, there are a lot of questions about whether multiverse theory is any less fantastic than the God theory. As another physicist, Paul Davies, points out:
The multiverse comes with a lot of baggage, such as an overarching space and time to host all those bangs, a universe-generating mechanism to trigger them, physical fields to populate the universes with material stuff, and a selection of forces to make things happen. Cosmologists embrace these features by envisaging sweeping "meta-laws" that pervade the multiverse and spawn specific bylaws on a universe-by-universe basis. The meta-laws themselves remain unexplained – eternal, immutable transcendent entities that just happen to exist and must simply be accepted as given. In that respect the meta-laws have a similar status to an unexplained transcendent god.
The third problem is the status of multiverse theory as science. In fact, all of the things we are told science should do--be observable, testable, and have predictive power--are absent to a large degree from multiverse theory. In other words, there not only a questions at to whether this scientific theory can explain God away, but there is a debate about whether the theory is even scientific. Once all the purported advantages of science are no long possessed by a scientific theory, then why are we to prefer the scientific theory of the origin of things any better than the religious theory of the origin of things?

Writing before the Hawking comments made the news, Adam Frank, an astrophysicist and science journalist pointed out:

The core problem is that, as of this writing, there is no experimental evidence that hidden dimensions or alternate universe exist. Proponents will justifiably point to the rich theoretical insights that a field like String Theory has provided. They also rightly argue that Einstein's relativity seemed overly mathematical and abstract when it was first introduced and took time before people figured out how to test its veracity. These are valid points but it seems to me there is more at work here than simply technical abstraction. There is an unspoken metaphysics in the new theories that manifests itself as shift in the focus of science. That shift needs to be brought out in the open as part of the debate lest we end up in a very dead end. As Unger says "When we imagine our Universe to be just one out of a multitude of possible worlds we devalue this world, the one we see, the one we should be trying to explain."

I think I would have to agree. There might, indeed, be a multiverse and I like alternative universes as much as the next science fiction groupie. But I wonder how long we should wait before a field yields real, experimentally verifiable fruit. It may well be that String Theory's hidden dimension's are real. Still how much effort do we put into explorations based on the potentially unobservable while shifting away from the tradition of exploring only the actual? More importantly what do we make of the ontological status of theories that need what might be permanently hidden to explain what is always visible?

What happened to all the pro-science putties who jump your case about your religious beliefs because they are not falsifiable? Stephen Hawking has to merely hiccup, and they all go scurrying away.

In fact, the whole way in which these kinds of theories are used brings up important questions. If you read around a bit on this, what you find is that you have scientists concocting an explanation of something, and simply concocting however many other logically prior assumptions it takes to make that explanation plausible. For example, Frank points out that one of the theories employed to explain quantum gravity was string theory. But, it turns only, string theory cannot do this in a world of only three dimensions. But it could be explained with an additional seven dimensions--ten in all. Do we therefore automatically accept that there are ten dimensions? What if string theory is just wrong? Then what happens to the dimensions that string theory required to explain quantum gravity? And at what point do the required assumptions become so preposterous that scientists simply decide to abandon string theory and wait for another explanation to come along?

Or maybe just accept--at least on a tentative basis--the Oldest Theory about how the universe got here?

Physics comes to its conclusion largely through mathematical abstraction, and it may be for reasons like above that Einstein said in 1921, "Insofar as the propositions of mathematics give an account of reality they are not certain; and insofar as they are certain they do not describe reality."

It isn't as if no one has tried to explain Hawking's thesis. Sean Carroll has taken a stab at it. "You don't need to go outside the universe to explain the universe," He says:
You could imagine an understanding of the universe--why it came into existence--without ever leaving the laws of nature--without ever invoking some divine, some supernatural being. The universe could just obey its own laws. It could be a natural, physical, real universe, obeying the laws of physics, and that can be a complete explanation of everything.
Well, the first and perhaps most obvious point is that just because you can imagine something does not make it true. You would think that would go without saying in a scientific discussion, but such is the allure of atheism.

Furthermore, if you invoke natural laws to explain the universe and then, based on your assumptions about those laws, start doing your atheist end zone dance celebrating your victory in explaining the universe, exactly how long does it take for you to realize that those laws themselves require an explanation?

The point apparently never occurred to Carroll. In fact, he goes further than Hawking seems himself to go: "The question 'Why is there something rather than nothing," he says, "has been answered."

It has? How exactly do you answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing by simply pointing to the something? C. S. Lewis once asked how someone, simply on the basis of studying nature, can say anything about what is beyond nature.

In fact, we seem to have here the perennial problem here of scientists making forays into philosophy without any actual expertise. The question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is simply not a scientific question.

It's a bad mistake to make, since science and philosophy are two entirely different universes.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Darwinism of the Gaps: Is Hausergate evidence that bad science is heritable?

Evolutionary psychologists will now have to be moved down to a lower branch on the credibility tree thanks to a scandal involving a Harvard professor famous for his research purporting to show that morality is merely a "survival instinct" that has developed over a long period of human evolution. Marc Hauser, the author of Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, was found by a professional conduct committee of "scientific misconduct" for falsifying data that supported his thesis.

The penchant for trying to explain every human characteristic according to the Darwinian theory is something that has gotten too little attention. When theists try to explain something they don't think science explains, they are accused of engaging in the "God of the Gaps" thinking. What no one seems to have noticed, however, is the reverse tendency: "Darwinism of the Gaps."

Darwinism of the Gaps is the tendency to try to explain any area of human behavior they think theism shouldn't be able to explain by supplying a Darwinian or genetic explanation that, no matter how unlikely or counter-intuitive, is to be preferred over the religious explanation--even if the religious explanation is perfectly reasonable.

Morality, which makes perfect sense according to theism, is just one of these things to be explained by Darwinism, and the criteria these explanations are required to meet seems to be uniformly low. In fact, the only operative criterion seems to be that they exclude the theistic hypothesis.

Even though the scandal has caused a lot of fur to fly among the scientific community, one has to wonder why. What is wrong with falsifying data? Particularly when the whole point of the data which Mr. Hauser falsified was to show that nothing can truly be said to be wrong.

And where does this Harvard committee get off wagging their institutional finger at someone like Hauser? I mean, how long have they been around anyway? Maybe they just haven't been around long enough to have evolved the appropriate moral respect for the falsification of data.

According a Wall Street Journal exposé on the issue, this isn't the first time evolutionary psychology has had to be given time out:
Not so long ago, the initial bloom already was off evolutionary psychology. The field earned a bad name by appearing to justify all sorts of nasty, rapacious behaviors, including rape, as successful strategies for Darwinian competition. But the second wave of the discipline solved that PR problem by discovering that evolution favored those with a more progressive outlook. Mr. Hauser has been among those positing that our ancestors survived not by being ruthlessly selfish, but by cooperating, a legacy ingrained in our moral intuitions.
It is one of the ironies of modern scientific thought that that those most convinced that we got here through a process of the Survival of the Fittest, a process involving competition, would have become so enamored of a theory that posits the Survival of the Nicest, a process involving cooperation.

It's a testimony to the fervor with which they hold to their theory that they would cling to two completely contradictory theses in order to maintain the Darwinian Faith. The irony is particularly marked given the additional Darwinist tendency to accuse those of other faiths of being irrational.

Then again, maybe the penchant for offering contradictory explanations for the positions you hold is an evolved trait which favors the survival of Darwinists.

It's hard to tell.