Saturday, July 30, 2011

Looking for Insight in All the Wrong Places: What can science really tell us about human nature?

In a review in the New York Review of Books entitled, "Fooled by Science," biologist H. Allen Orr nicely dismantles David Brooks' new book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. The book treats many of the issues involving science and human beings that Brooks has written about recently in magazine and newspaper articles.

The gist of the articles (several of which we have written about here) has had generally to do with what the glandular and chemical events going on when we think, choose, and emote say about the thinking, choosing and emoting--which, Brooks seems to think, is quite a lot:
The Social Animal is an attempt to write an accessible treatment of a set of weighty topics, many of which require Brooks to stretch in a distinctly scientific direction. The book, which was excerpted earlier this year in The New Yorker, focuses on big and somewhat diffuse questions: What has science revealed about human nature? What are the sources of character? And why are some people happy and successful while others aren’t?
The lack of Brooks' own expertise in actual science is matched only by his enthusiasm for making declarations about what its findings are. Brooks talks a lot about human nature, but it is never clear exactly what he means by it. Maybe this is clarified in the book. The traditional definition, of course, is metaphysical, rather than scientific in nature, and so it is rather hard to say exactly what science could say about it. And then there's the problem that much of modern scientistic thought (in which Brooks seem to share) is anti-metaphysical.

It is, in fact, a curious thing that the less confidence modern materialist scientists have in the actual existence of a human nature, the more they claim to be able to tell us about how it is effected by the physiology of human beings.

The first problem Orr spots is the simple fact of Brooks being in over his head:
... Brooks never seems fully comfortable with all this science. He often appears ill at ease in a world of technical journals, disagreements among experts, and statistical measures of uncertainty. A working scientist knows, for example, that some findings are more secure than others, often because the former derive from studies that involved many subjects and the latter from studies that involved few. 
Brooks doesn’t seem to grasp this difference. To Brooks, science is science. It’s all equally sound and can be taken at face value. His lack of expertise also presumably accounts for his occasional reliance on popular scientific journalism. Thus we’re treated to conclusions from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist, among others. Since these writers are also nonscientists, Brooks’s analysis sometimes leaves us two steps removed from the actual scientist and his facts, facts that are often accompanied in the scientific literature by caveats or exceptions. 
While Brooks concedes his lack of scientific savvy, it nonetheless leads him into several difficulties. For one thing, his arguments sometimes simply don’t make sense.
And of course not making sense is a bad problem to have when you're talking about a subject in which you're not well versed. But in addition to not making sense, it appears that Brooks has some problem simply being consistent:
Brooks also sometimes champions both of two opposing scientific views, apparently without appreciating the resulting absurdities. On several occasions, for example, he praises emergentism, the view that a whole (say, an organism) is greater than the sum of its parts. Emergentism is often taken as opposed to reductionism, the view that we can understand a whole by understanding its parts. (“Divide and conquer; the devil is in the details. Therefore, for decades we have been forced to see the world through its constituents.”) But The Social Animal veers erratically between Brooks’s endorsement of emergentism and his recitation of major accomplishments of reductionist science. Indeed the science that Brooks reports is mostly reductionist. There may not be a flat contradiction here but there is at least a serious tension and it’s one to which Brooks seems oblivious.
Brooks couches his discussion in a narrative in which two of the characters are Julia and Rob. Orr gives us a sample of the way Brooks executes his scientific analysis:
As Julia and Rob semi-embraced, they silently took in each other’s pheromones. Their cortisol levels dropped. 
Later in their relationship, Rob and Julia would taste each other’s saliva and then collect genetic information. 
When parents do achieve this attunement with their kids, then a rush of oxytocin floods through their brains. 
But the caudate nucleus and the VTA [ventral tegmental area] are also parts of something else, the reward system of the mind. They produce powerful chemicals like dopamine, which can lead to focused attention, exploratory longings, and strong, frantic desire. Norepinephrine, a chemical derived from dopamine, can stimulate feelings of exhilaration, energy, sleeplessness, and loss of appetite. Phenylethylamine is a natural amphetamine that produces feelings of sexual excitement and emotional uplift.
Doesn't a passage like that just clarify everything? What is it about chemical descriptions of romantic encounters that always makes you want to reach for an antiemetic? But Orr points to the real problem here, which is that all of this impressive-sounding scientific jargon doesn't really tell us much:
What of our view of humanity changes if, when parents achieve an “attunement with their kids,” the molecule that “floods through their brains” is schmoxytocin, not oxytocin? The salient fact is that some molecule or some part of the brain underlies various aspects of consciousness or unconsciousness. But this is hardly news. As the philosopher Jerry Fodor once quipped, it’s been clear for a while now that mental processes occur north of the neck. The rest is a sort of biological bookkeeping that, while significant to the specialist, seems to provide the popular writer only with a long list of factoids. It’s not that these facts are wrong or unconnected to the higher-level phenomena—lust, emotional uplift, or insight—that Brooks discusses. They’re just superfluous.
Why would an analysis of the activity and composition of chemicals during a particular human activity tell us any more about human nature than an analysis of the movements my fingers as I type this post and the composition of the pixels on this screen would tell us about the meaning of this post?

Finally, Orr questions what all this has to do with politics and policy, a connection Brooks makes in the book:
In the end, The Social Animal presents a lot of science and it presents a laudable goal of increasing human happiness and improving public policy. But it spends next to no time plausibly explaining how the former is supposed to lead to the latter.
Supposedly scientific explanations of human life and nature never seem to yield what they promise. In fact, more often than not, they turn out not to be explanations at all, but only descriptions of the mechanical and chemical conditions that happen to accompany other important things.

If I went to see a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, I would discover little of the meaning of the play by studying how the producers built the set and what they used to design the costumes. I would discover nothing of lasting importance in George Eliot's Silas Marner by analyzing how the printer copied and bound the book I read it from. And I would find out nothing of any real significance about the meaning of the movie "Casablanca" by spending my time figuring out how the image was projected onto the screen.

But this same procedure is used by people like Brooks in their attempt to better understand human nature.

Go figure.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Politeness Matters: Why population control advocates should get a life--several, in fact

Simon Ross, chief executive of the British nonprofit group Population Matters, has criticized soccer star David Beckham and his wife Victoria for having a fourth child. Surely Beckham can be excused for his reproductive excesses. He is a soccer player and there is some question whether soccer players are able to understand numbers as high as four, not ever having much occasion to count that high in a sport in which a 2-0 win is considered piling it on, and where it is not unusual for games to terminate with a score of 0-0.

Actually the Beckhams, as the Wall Street Journal points out, are a nice family. They mind their own business, stay out of trouble, and don't give unsolicited preachy lectures on their favorite politically correct causes. Why wouldn't we want more of them, even if their numbers exceed the allowable points-per-game total in Beckham's chosen profession?

In fact, what business does Ross have giving other people lectures on how many children to have? I'm trying to think of what more you could do to prove yourself a cad.

A world in which there are more Beckhams is a better place. And a world in which there are fewer Rosses doesn't sound terribly unpleasant either--not that anyone ought to force the issue.

Of course, reducing the numbers of anti-population kooks doesn't require much outside assistance. They do a pretty good job of it themselves, don't they?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Modern reproductive follies

"During the sexual revolution of the 1960s," says James Neuchterlein, "people wanted to have sex without children, but in 2010 we find ourselves trying to have children without sex ..."

A strange paradox brought to you by the people who think (equally paradoxically) that reproductive organs are not for reproduction.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My appearance on the Joe Elliot Show

I was on the Joe Elliot Show today from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. discussing a number of issues, including Instant Racing, domestic partner benefits in Louisville, and the hospital merger. Click the link for the podcase

Hospital merger could interrupt efforts to reduce number of poor people in Kentucky

A merger plan now slated to go forward between a university hospital, a Jewish hospital, and two Catholic hospitals in Kentucky could result in an interruption in the effort to reduce the number of poor people through abortion, sterilization, and artificial birth control as well as place more burdensome restrictions on hospitals denying comatose and dying patients food and water.

"These are major issues related to women's health at the hospital that provides the greatest amount of care for indigents in the city," intoned the editorial writers at the Louisville Courier-Journal, who support the indigent control policies that would care the city's poor into oblivion.

Several liberal state lawmakers, women's groups, state attorney general Jack Conway, and the state's largest newspaper--all welling with compassion for the poor--are in a major league snit over a proposed merger between University of Louisville hospital and Louisville's Jewish Hospital, and two Catholic hospitals, St. Josephs and St. Mary's that could result in fewer "reproductive" services that are designed to minimize reproduction of poor people.

"Louisville hospital merger probably means poor women won't get their tubes tied at University Hospital," declared a headline of a July 19th story at Kentucky Health News.

A July 23 story in the Louisville Courier-Journal voiced the concern about the prospect of having too many poor people underfoot:
Dismay over the merger's possible effect on reproductive care led more than 450 people to sign a newspaper advertisement asking officials to change the merger's terms. Catholic rules forbid sterilization, non-natural birth control and abortions — meaning, for example, that low-income women or those with high-risk pregnancies could not get a tubal ligation at University at the same time as their delivery.
According to the Kentucky Commission on Women, a left-wing advocacy group funded by Kentucky taxpayers, in a letter to the editor today in the CJ, "Many low-income patients rely on access to sterilization after multiple births as a common method of contraception." The Kentucky Commission on Women has a link on their website to Planned Parenthood, whose founder, Margaret Sanger, once said, in caring and compassionate tones, ""More children from the fit, less from the unfit--that is the chief aim of birth control."

Caring liberals are also concerned about restrictions on mercy killing. A CJ story on July 23 discussed concerns about a directive in Catholic hospitals that "says there is normally an obligation to give patients food and water, including those in a 'persistent vegetative state'."

And speaking of people in a persistently vegetative state, today's CJ editorial of took U of L President James Ramsey to task for his most recent attempt at damage control gone haywire:
In Mr. Ramsey's case, the pattern of evasiveness — or outright scorn — for questions has seriously eroded his level of respect and support. Remember the early days of the scandals over former education dean Robert Felner? Interviewed by a WHAS reporter, Mr. Ramsey dismissed the allegations as “anonymous crap.” Mr. Felner now is in the penitentiary for defrauding U of L and another university. And Mr. Ramsey won't discuss the debacle at Passport Health Services, which was run by U of L's vice president for health sciences. That individual, Dr. Larry Cook, was forced to resign by the Governor, yet is being sent on a year's retooling at the rate of nearly $1 million.
Yes, we do remember the Felner scandal. We also remember the CJ dragging its feet in bringing it to light, allowing Jake Payne at Page One, Kentucky to scoop them at every turn. Intrepid these people are not.

So, let's see, we have a "Commission on Women" that is nothing more than a tax-funded left-wing advocacy group that promotes the nation's largest abortion provider, James Ramsey whose attempts at dealing with crises makes the Keystone Kops look positively sophisticated, The Courier-Journal editorial board who has memory lapses when it comes to its own journalistic lapses, and then there's State Rep. Tom Burch, the chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee who was recently found guilty of ethics violations.

Oh, and did we forget Mayor Fischer, who recently issued an order on domestic partner benefits in Louisville with absolutely no public input?

These are the people now lecturing the hospitals on how to do things properly. But they are caring and compassionate people who love the poor so much that they are willing to go the extra mile in making sure they can help them limit their population.

Go Cards.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Another sign of the coming conservative moment in the American Catholic Church

Charles Chaput (pronounced "Shapoo"), the conservative Archbishop of Denver since 1997, was appointed Archbishop of Philadelphia by the Vatican, one of the highest positions in the American Catholicism. Chaput is a Potawatami Indian and a member of the Capuchin order.

The move is seen as the latest sign that the Catholic Church in America is moving in a more conservative direction. This is the most significant blow to the liberal Bernadin wing of the American Church bureaucracy since the election of another conservative, Archbishop Anthony Dolan of New York, to head the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops late last year.

Chaput was, of course, polite and gracious to the outgoing Cardinal Rigali, but the child sex abuse scandal also played a factor in the appointment of Chaput, who many say the Vatican saw as a much needed outsider, and who has acted swiftly in such cases in the Denver archdiocese. Conservatives like Chaput are of a less therapeutic mindset than the liberals who thought that such cases could be solved through psychological treatment--an attitude that resulted in many offending priests being put back into positions with exposure to children.

The conservative trend in American Catholicism is the subject of George Wiegel's "The End of the Bernadin Era," in the February edition of First Things magazine.

Are the roots of the Republican Party strictly economic?

Rudy Giuliani is telling Republicans who have criticized New York for legalizing same-sex "marriage" to stay away from the marriage issue and stick to economics, like good Republicans always have.
 “Stay out of it,” Giuliani said. “And I think we'd be a much more successful political party if we stuck to our economic, conservative roots and our idea of a strong, assertive America that is not embarrassed to be the leader of the world.”
The Republican Party? You mean the party founded in Ripon, Wisconsin in 1854 in order to oppose the expansion of slavery, the greatest social issue of the time? That Republican party? Staying away from social issues because it has always stuck to economic issues?

Rudy needs to review his own party's history--and then think about not saying stupid things like this from now on.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Homosexuality as a species of Narcissism: Why same-sex marriage is becoming so popular

A lot of people are still sorting out the meaning of marriage's biggest defeat to date: the legalization of same-sex "marriage" in New York.

There are, of course, all the cheer leaders among the advocates of same-sex "marriage" out there who mindlessly repeat the Approved Slogans about "fairness" and "diversity"--words which, once translated from the not-so-secret ideological code to common English, turn out to mean "intolerance" and "uniformity," respectively. But to anyone who has seriously thought through the philosophical and cultural consequences of all this have to be wondering what is becoming of their culture.

In an article in the new edition of First Things magazine, David P. Goldman follows up his article of last October about the music of Richard Wagner with a review of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Wagner's Die Walküre ("The Valkyrie"). In both of these articles, Goldman makes more sense of the modern mindset than anything I've read in the last ten years.

Wagner's Walküre, the second of his "Ring" operas, is the story of Siegmund and Sieglinde--a brother and his fraternal sister, although they don't know it--who meet after a long separation resulting from a raid on their village early in life. They fall in love.

It's a story, in other words, about incest.

The reason they fall in love is because they see the image of themselves in each other. "You are the image I harbor in me," says Siegmund to Sieglinde. In other words, instead of the normal pattern of erotic love, which is the attraction due to the difference of the lovers, these two (modern people that they are) are attracted by their similarities. "Erotic energy is transferred," Goldman quotes Gail Finney as observing, "from the narcissistic individual to the object most like himself, his sibling."

"Wagner remains the consummate bard of narcissistic love, of passion for our own alter egos," says Goldman. And, by the way (Goldman only hints at this, but I'll say it explicitly), this also makes sense of Hitler's expropriation of Wagner for his Arian myth--the worship of your own race and nation.

And then Goldman makes this observation:
Wagner wants to counterpose a love of pure impulse to the covenantal order of traditional society. He despises covenantal order; as Nietzsche wrote, "Whence arises all evil in the world, Wagner asked himself? ... From customs, laws, morals, institutions, from all those things on which the ancient world and ancient society rests."
Goldman pointed out in his October article that "Wagner set out to destroy musical teleology, which he abhorred as the 'tyranny of form.'" He sought instead to replace musical teleology, which subordinates the ecstatic moment to the broader end or purpose of the composition, with a concentration on the individual moment, the one experience within the song which would make the composition worth listening to. Instead of music that pointed to something outside the composition itself in the old Christian mode, Wagner would provide the moment in the very experience of listening that is the only thing that could bestow musical value, since there is no such things as teleology.

Of course, Wagner's emphasis on the intensification of the one authenticating moment is not something unfamiliar to us: it has, in fact, become the mode in which we now apprehend the affective in contemporary culture. It seems sometimes that that is what we are all after. We no longer live under Heaven, the approximation of which was once thought to be accomplished by the completion of a great goal or quest. We now live for the moment.

This teleological order that until recently held sway--the loose vestige of Christendom--had marriage as its center:
Wagner reminds us why Judeo-Christian society rests on the institution of marriage. It is not merely because marriage produces children and socializes them. A republic is defined, Augustine argued in The City of God, not only be a common interest but by a common love. Western polity depends on the mutual love of God and his people. In the normative love of men and women, it is opposites that attract: that is why, since Hosea, heterosexual love has served as the metaphor par excellence for the love of the absolute Other.

Far better than the political philosophers, Wagner understood that the covenant that underlies Western society is not a Hobbesian calculation but rather a nuptial commitment. The family is the fundamental unit of society because it nurtures in the sphere of intimacy an approximation of the covenantal bond between God and Israel.

To extirpate the covenantal order, Wagner understood, one must tear out its roots and provide an alternative: the ecstatic swoon of self-recognition, the ego's celebration of itself ...

In a scene from the movie Lord of the Rings (I don't think it's in the book), Saruman is watching as his orcs uproot the ancient trees of Fangorn. An orc approaches hime and says, "the roots are deep, My Lord."

Only an impulse so irresistible that it tears apart and breaks through the bonds of convention and covenant would serve Wagner's purpose, an impulse that knows neither doubt nor hesitation. Mere adultery is inadequate for his purpose. In Tristan and Isolde, he made do with a love potion, a comic-opera device that trivializes the tragedy of his illicit lovers. The incestuous passion of Wotan's twins introduces something far more powerful than a potion--namely, the allconsuming love of the ego for itself ... The mutual passion of fraternal twins is the closest Wagner coiuld come to pure narcissism short of introducing homosexuality.
"In Die Walkure," Goldman continues, "the personal is political. The love of the fraternal twins begins the downfall of the god's covenantal order." The final installment of the Ring cycle, he points out, "leads to the Twilight of the Gods, the end of the old order."

Wagner, of course, knew what he was doing. Our cultural leaders, of course, don't have a clue. They are posers of the highest order. But there are a lot of them, and they have occupied the positions that were once held by those who valued custom and tradition. The people who claim to be "conservative" have sent their children to the same institutions (allegedly "educational" in nature, although the evidence would suggest otherwise) where they could be indoctrinated with Tolerance and Diversity, and now they know all the slogans too and spout them like good little revolutionaries.

We have been told that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality; the strictures against it were mere taboos. There is no "rational basis" (as the lawyers say) for not affirming it. Even if that were true (it isn't), as I have pointed out before, the same can be said for incest and cannibalism. And every time I point that out, the good little revolutionaries in the comments section, bravely standing for what everyone around them believes anyway, demur. But just give it about 5 years, and they will have already have followed their logic to its illogical conclusion.

Just watch.

Grade inflation (and self-delusion) in America's high schools

Average grades have increased at America's high schools every year since 1991 despite the fact that ACT scores have remained flat, reports economist Mark Perry.

Maybe this is good. Maybe we will all feel better about ourselves now that we think we are smarter than we really are. Self-esteem, after all, is one of the more important goals of our public education system. The only problem is that it is hard to tell the difference between self esteem and self delusion.

What I want all of you to do now is to write a comparison/contrast paper between these two things: self esteem and self delusion. You will all automatically get an "A", of course, since we don't want to damage anyone's self worth.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Should we elect judges?

I think Marc Carey has the best conservative blog in Kentucky, but I'll have to take issue with him on one matter.

"We elect judges in Kentucky," he says. "We must never give up that right, and we must pay very close attention to the mindset of those who would sit in judgement of our lives and liberty."

The occasion for the remark was a ruling in another state that Carey was upset about. But there are plenty of rulings by elected judges that sometimes don't seem to make much sense either. In fact, the decisions of voters on whom they elect their judge can sometimes seem rather odd.

In addition, he calls the ability of voters to elect judges a "right." Well, I'm not sure in what sense that is true, but if it were, it would not speak to the issue of whether it is a good idea. There are lots of things that are "rights" but are still not a good idea. Why was it, for example, that Kentucky did not have elected judges until 1976? Was there something the framers of Kentucky's original laws knew that we have forgotten?

Why is it that federal judges are not elected and never have been? Was there something the framers of our federal constitution knew that we don't?

To have the ability to recall judges, as they do for the Supreme Court in California, is a reasonable check on the judicial branch, but to have judges stand for reelection on a regular basis is a clear absurdity..

Recently in Kentucky, a court struck down a policy that prohibited judges from discussing issues in their races. The policy was put in place by judges (reasonably, I think) who believed that if they had to take a position on issues that would come before their courts, they could not rule impartially on cases involving those issues that came before them. On the other hand (and this is what The Family Foundation successfully argued in that case), voters have a right to know where they stand.

This is a dilemma--of judges who are supposed to be impartial but who are at the same time obliged to take a stand before voters on issues on which they might rule--that is created by virtue of the fact that they are elected at all.

It is particularly problematic at the local level, where, if a judge rules against a prominent or wealthy member of the community, that family can go after him in the next election and get him unseated. Exactly how does that contribute to impartial justice?

Judges should not be politicians, and--since the qualifications that go in to good jurisprudence are often at odds with the skills that go in to electioneering--the more you make them into good politicians, the poorer they become as judges.

Being in favor of electing judges is a great populist-sounding position to take, but you couldn't come up with a better way to ensure bad judges than electing them. The framers would have been appalled at this idea and we ought to be too.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Casting Thomist Pearls before Scientistic Swine: The philosophical education of Jerry Coyne

Okay. Do I feel prophetic or what?

No sooner had I posted about a little back and forth on a philosophical question now going on between Ed Feser (who actually, like, knows philosophy) and biologist Jerry Coyne (who apparently thinks it's easy to do, but doesn't seem to have much of a clue)--and observing that the first thing thinkers like Coyne do is mention the "Kalam" cosmological argument (largely because all they seem to understand is temporal causation)--than what does Coyne do?

He mentions the Kalam argument!

My point in the earlier post was that the people who critique the cosmological argument don't understand the difference between a temporal (what I called "horizontal") causation and ontological (or "vertical") causation, and so they make criticisms of the cosmological argument that assume the former, but betray an ignorance of the latter--which is why they almost always (as Coyne does here) use the old "then what caused God?" argument.

There's a reason you don't find much about this response in serious philosophical treatments of this issue: any real philosophy knows enough about the argument to know it's not a very telling response and indicates that the person really doesn't understand the argument.

Coyne even invokes Dawkins, whose book provided a classical example of this confusion, saying his book provided a "good summary" of the responses to this argument. The book is actually a philosophical embarrassment, as I have pointed out. But don't tell Coyne. He thinks it's pretty heady stuff.

And these are the people that laugh at creationists for not knowing what they're talking about.

So now Coyne has agreed, as Feser suggested, to read Aquinas. I think Feser has a little more confidence than I do that Coyne is even going to understand what Aquinas is saying, since he has no background in the terminology. He'll continue to confuse temporal with ontological causation and he'll think that what Aquinas means by motion is what scientists after Newton meant by it.

Just watch. I'll be on a streak!

Monday, July 11, 2011

The difference between horizontal and vertical thinking

There they go again. I've blogged numerous times here about penchant of the adherents of the Religion of Science to step into the little philosophical wading pools they build for themselves, splash around in them with their intellectual floaties thinking they're the philosophical version of Michael Phelps, and then hop out, critiquing the pool setup and declaring how easy it all was.

Jerry Coyne is particularly good at this and has been splashing around a lot recently in posts at his blog Why Evolution is True. He's been doing the same thing with theology too. He gets some books, can't understand much of what they say, turns them upside down to see if they make more sense that way, and then declares that it's all a bunch of hooey.

What would New Atheist types say if a critic of science devoid of any expertise whatsoever in any scientific discipline say if he got a hold of, say a chemistry book, didn't understand any of the terminology, had no clue about the periodic table and didn't know mathematics, but felt qualified to offer learned opinions on the subject?

I've critiqued several of Coyne's past attempts at philosophy here, here, and here. But unfortunately for Coyne and his atheist brethren, philosopher Ed Feser has penned another great take-down at his blog. He's also got some good links to the other articles he's done on the subject.

I think the problem with these people who like to play amateur philosopher every few weeks but don't have the slightest idea what they're doing is that they are exclusively extensional thinkers. In the old system of traditional logic, there was a distinction between what was called "extension" and what was called "comprehension." The philosopher Francis Beckwith has made the same observation in the comments section of this blog.

The extension of a term is its real world referents. If I ask what the extension of the term "man" is, the answer is all the men who ever were, are, or will be. If I ask what the comprehension of the term "man" is, the answer is a rational, sentient, living, material substance. The former doesn't tell me the meaning of the term, but only its application. The latter tells me the intellectual content of the term. It's the difference between defining man as a featherless biped and as a rational animal.

Coyne and his ilk are so used to going around measuring and weighing everything that when they are called upon (or call upon themselves) to address a thing's meaning or significance, they automatically grab for the nearest measuring instruments. And when they don't get a proper reading, they start shaking their heads in confusion, thinking the problem is with what they've read rather than in their own ability to understand it.

I have somethings termed scientific (or, more properly, scientistic) thinking horizontal thinking, and philosophical thinking vertical thinking. This comes out starkly when the cosmological argument for the existence of God comes up. The first thing out of their mouths is a purported refutation of the Kalam version of the argument, which involves the attempt to prove that the universe had a first cause in time. It is a horizontal argument.

But just try to explain to them St. Thomas' version of the argument which has nothing to do with a horizontal chain of causation in time, but rather with the vertical or ontological order of causation that does not assume a beginning of the universe. Plan on spending some time on it.

You will hear this kind of thing voiced here on this blog by several of the commentators who, as much as your Humble Host loves them, can be counted upon to ask me what scientific evidence I have for some philosophical belief I have voiced, wondering what the readings were on my scientific instruments. These are people who think there must be a how answer to every what and why question.

Now, watch them ask me what scientific evidence I have for this opinion.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The test made them do it

Atlanta teachers caught cheating on federal tests and whose fault is it? The tests! What were we thinkin'?

You gotta love the public school establishment.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Exemptions for bigotry? The same-sex marriage slippery slope

George Weigel, writing in National Review on the decision to ensconce same-sex "marriage" in law:
Before the ink was dry on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature on New York’s new marriage law, the New York Times published an editorial decrying the “religious exemptions” that had been written into the marriage law at the last moment. Those exemptions do, in fact, undercut the logic of the entire redefinition of marriage in the New York law — can you imagine any other “exemption for bigotry” being granted, in any other case of what the law declares to be a fundamental right?
Just watch those religious exemptions go away. Fast.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Becoming as rational as we think we are

G. K. Chesterton once said that the "whole modern world is at war with reason." "The tower," he added, "already reels." In what sense can this be true? When we think of ourselves in all of our modern glory—unadulterated by the myths and superstitions of the past, don't we think of ourselves as more informed, more enlightened, more rational than we have ever been? Indeed we do, but is it due to the fact that we are, or the less sanguine fact that we understand less than ever before what reason is and how we have deviated from it?

Perhaps the chief reason we consider ourselves rational is our mastery of technology. When Jesus spoke of moving mountains, he was speaking of a thing quite impossible for his hearers. For us, however, it is not only not impossible, but not uncommon. We dynamite through mountains to make way for roads, and lay them waste in our search for coal. We can even transform them into islands by the simple expedient of damning a river and making a valley into a lake.

Science looms large in our view of ourselves. We are like Marlowe’s Faust in the German legend who lusts for power over nature and, after selling his soul for knowledge, accounts himself a god:

Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky,
Lord and commander of these elements.

Faust, a scholar and alchemist, is encouraged by the magician Cornelius to study the magical arts—“to be renown'd”:

And more frequented for this mystery
Than heretofore the Delphian oracle.

Like Faust, we mistake power for knowledge, and knowledge for wisdom.

In fact, magic provides an interesting comparison to modern science. Despite the disdain with which the modern scientist views the magician of old, there is a serious question whether he is really so different after all. Both concern themselves with power—most particularly, the power over nature. The modern scientist would like to say that the tools of magic were irrational while the scientist's are rational.

But is this true?

Before the advent of reason, there were the gods. Mythology, which interpreted the world on the basis of the imagination, provided men with their explanations of the world. Then came the philosophers with their rational account of reality, based upon the intellect. The mythical and the rational accounts of the world were consolidated in the Christian worldview, which was at once both religious and reasonable, and which reached its zenith in works like St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica during the middle ages.

But then came science.

The science of the 18th century proposed to dispense with the need for spiritual and imaginative theories of things, and sought to explain the world on the basis of rational principles—or at least empirical ones. It came with a new method—two methods, in fact. The first was mathematics, and the second empirical investigation. By these two mechanisms, they would interpret the world.

The new science pictured the world through a new analogy. Before Galileo and Isaac Newton, the world was seen as like an organism. It would now be seen as like a machine. We—and many scientists in the natural sciences—still think of nature in terms of Newton’s mechanistic view of the world. One particle acts on another particle and that particle affects another and so on. What most people do not know is that this view of the world was utterly destroyed by 20th century physics.

“The physics that came of age in the seventeenth century,” says Philosopher Joe Sachs, his commentary on Aristotle’s Physics:

and seemed to have answered all the large questions by the nineteenth, is limping toward the end of the twentieth century in some confusion. Mathematics and technology have coped with all the crises of this century, but the picture of the world that underlay them has fallen apart.

The most successful school of science ever devised is quantum theory. “No one,” said the late physicist Roger S. Jones, “has ever made a measurement that quantum theory could not correctly predict.” No other scientific discipline can boast as much. But quantum theory, far from providing us with a rational account of nature, has actually undermined it. Quantum theory is not just a scientific theory; it is a theory about science. It is, says Jones, in his Physics for the Rest of Us, “a radically new conception of science.” Far from giving us certainty about nature, it has given us the opposite: Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is, in fact, “the very cornerstone of the quantum theory’s foundation.”

The chief question leading to the development of quantum mechanics historically was the question of the composition of light. Light was originally seen as made up of particles. But experiments in the early 20th century led some scientists to conclude that light was not made up of particles at all, but of waves. The problem facing physicists in the early days of quantum theory was that the two theories were completely inconsistent: light could not be made up of both particles and waves—logically, it was one or the other. How did they settle this question?

Their answer consisted of saying that light is now seen as being made up of “photons.” But what is a photon? A photon is a “wave-particle”! But if light cannot be both waves and particles, then how can it be a wave-particle? The answer, said Neils Bohr, the pioneer of quantum theory, lay in the principle of “Complementarity.” “This principles states,” says Jones:

that our descriptions of the micro-world present mutually exclusive views that are inconsistent with each other but which are complementary. The different views complement each other in the sense that all views are needed to form a complete picture.

In other words, there is no answer. The principle of Complementary is just a nice-sounding way of saying that nature is at bottom irrational—at least according to quantum theorists. More surprising still, however, is that physicists do not deny this. In fact, the principle of Complementarity is their way of embracing it.

After having helped to birth it, Albert Einstein spent the rest of his life trying to fend off quantum theory because he saw its irrational implications. “I know enough about the fundamental structure of the world to know that some things cannot happen,” he said. But quantum theory proved that those can happen. The man who had proved that nothing could travel faster than the speed of light was faced with the quantum discovery that the observation of one particle at one end of the universe could have an instantaneous effect on another particle at another end of the universe. Einstein couldn’t accept it; but at the same time he couldn’t deny it. He called it “spooky actions at a distance.”

The occult forces science thought it had dispensed with in the 18th century reasserted themselves in the 20th with a vengeance. “The progress of science has now reached a turning point,” said philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. “the stable foundations of physics have broken up … The old foundations of scientific thought are becoming unintelligible.” Quantum theory, mathematical science's greatest achievement, can only predict; it can no longer explain.
There is a sense in which the new magic of quantum physics is worse than the old magic of the astrologers and the alchemists. At least the old magic thought that the way to master the world was to understand the elements—to know what things are. Faust would “canvass every quiddity thereof” in his quest for power. But modern science has given up on canvassing the quiddity— the “whatness”—of things.
“Quantum theory denies that phenomena have any inner reality,” says Jones:
It provides answers only for the results of actual experimental observations, and it tells us nothing about what happens between our observations … Quantum theory provides us with remarkably accurate quantitative predictions of atomic phenomena, but it denies us any picture of the inner workings of nature.
Science, in other words, has given up on the idea of reality—because is cannot provide a rational account of it. It has dispensed with the whatness, the “quiddity,” of things in the interest of simply gaining predictive control over it. “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is,” said Neils Bohr. “Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”
Quantum theory has proved many things, and one of the things it has proved is that science cannot provide man with a rational account of nature. The gods of ancient man were arbitrary and capricious, but, with the advent of Christianity, these were replaced by a rational God. Not content with that, however, man took his place during the Enlightenment as the highest of beings, only, in short order, to use his own power to displace himself, with nature as the highest of all things—and now nature itself has turned out to be arbitrary and capricious, and so man is back where he started.
The scientific project of explaining the world in rational terms is effectively over, and the question we must now face is what view of the world can take its place.
We will never find a rational account of the world in what has come to be called the “Age of Reason”—the scientific age. We will find it only in the Age of Faith. The most thoroughly rational period of history, ironically, was the Christian middle ages. It was an age which had taken account of the philosophical discoveries of the ancients, and had incorporated those discoveries in a larger Christian worldview.
Whitehead, in his great analysis of modern science, Science and the Modern World, pointed out that it was only in a Christian civilization that the original goal of science—to explain the world in rational terms—could have come about in the first place:
When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilizations when left to themselves, there seems but one source for its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher.
Part of the faith exercised by classical thinkers in general and the great medieval Christian thinkers in particular, was a faith in the order of the cosmos. “Faith in reason,” says Whitehead, “is the trust that the ultimate natures of things lie together in a harmony which excludes mere arbitrariness. It is the faith that at the base of things we shall not find mere arbitrary mystery.”

Christianity is often thought of as a religion of faith, and indeed it is. But it is a faith in a rational God, a rational universe—and a rational man.

In the New Testament, God is himself identified with reason: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God," says the writer of the Gospel of John. The term translated "Word" meant much more than that in the original Greek. The Greek word logos not only meant speech or discourse, but thought or reason. To some it was also a reference to the animating and ordering principle of the universe. One scholar goes so far as to say that the verse could just as easily have been rendered, "In the beginning was the Logic and the Logic was with God and the Logic was God." It may sound awkward, but it is not without justification.

There are some who believe that the rational tendency in Christianity was some sort of syncretistic imposition on an earlier, theologically purer form of Christianity. There is a whole school of thought among evangelicals, in fact, that tries to ferret out the Greek influences on Christianity in order to cleanse the faith of these alien elements. But the rational element, later developed by Greek thinkers, was there from the very beginning.

Whatever you believe about the chronological order in which God created the world, there is one thing undeniable about the creation account in Genesis: it is logical. And part of the rational aspect of the creation account is its clear hierarchy: it begins at the bottom of things, so to speak, and moves to the highest created thing: man. “What stands out,” says Leon Kass in The Beginning of Wisdom, his great commentary on the Book of Genesis, is the "utterly logical and intelligible structure of the entire account":

The main principles at work in the creation are place, separation, motion, and life, but especially separation and motion. Places are regions necessary for the placement of separated kinds of beings and backgrounds for the detection of their motion, whereas life may be looked at—at least at a first glance—as a higher and more independent kind of motion. Further, one can treat locomotion as a more advanced kind of separation, in which a distinct being already separated from others also separates itself from place. Thus, we could say that the fundamental principle through with the world was created is separation. Creation is the bringing of order out of chaos largely through acts of separation, division, distinction.

Kass points out that the word "divide" or "separate" appears explicitly five times in the creation account.

In the old Aristotelian logic (not the modern logic of the mathematicians), defining and dividing or classifying are essential elements. God employs a series of consistent divisions in his ordering of the world. Kass points to the observation of the philosopher Leo Strauss:

[From] the principle of separation, light [which allows discernment and distinction]; via something which separates, heaven; to something which is separated, earth and sea; to things which are productive of separated things, trees, for example; then things which can separate themselves from their courses, brutes; and finally, a being which can separate itself from its way, the right way.

Why is it that plants are introduced in the creation account before the sun? Plants are dependent upon its light. In a logical ordering, this makes complete sense: the division between those things which do and do not inhabit regional space is more fundamental than the division between those things that have and do not have the ability of local motion, as the accompanying chart demonstrates.

This rational universe created by a rational God is also productive of a rational creature: man. “In the cosmology of Genesis,” says Kass, “human beings clearly stand at the peak of the creatures.” Under the Darwinian view, which is purely mechanistic, this cannot be. Darwin, as Jacques Barzun points out, wrote a note to himself in his notebooks: “Never use higher or lower.” “Insofar as evolutionary theory offers any standard for higher and lower,," says Kass, "that standard could only be a standard of success, namely, most surviving offspring—in which case, at least in Chicago, the cockroach would be the highest being.”

Man is not only the end of creation insofar as he stands at its termination; he is also the end of creation as being its goal. “Man is the ultimate work of creation,” says Kass, “he is the last of the creatures listed in hierarchical order, and once he appears, the work of creation is complete.” Unlike all the other animals, he bears the image of the Creator himself. He is like God, but he is not himself a god. He is like God to the extent that he “exercises speech and reason, freedom in doing and making, and the power of contemplation, judgment, and care.”

The cost of bowing to the new scientific theories that posit an irrational world is not only a rational cosmos, but a rational man. But do we need to give up our own rationality for the sake of the newest scientific theories? In asking us to accept belief such as the Principle of Complementarity, however, that is what we are being asked to do.

It was this classical view of an orderly world—a world which was conceived in order and which retains its hierarchical structure—that informed the thought of the early scientists. It is, in a strange historical turn, what the reigning theory in physics now asks us to abandon. Philosophers like Whitehead and R. G. Collingwood—and Joe Sachs—have proposed that the only alternative is to return to the classical view of the world which expressed itself in classical philosophers like Aristotle—and which was implicit in the Book of Genesis.

“O, something soundeth in mine ears,” says Faust to himself. “’Abjure this magic, turn to God again!’”