Sunday, December 25, 2005

Poverty in Wealth, Wealth in Poverty

[Christ Jesus] though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.1

[B]eing rich he became poor, for your sakes; that through his poverty you might be rich.2

May our many material gifts not blind us to our true poverty. We must recognize our emptiness before we can accept His wealth.


1. Phil 2:6-7.

2. 2 Cor 8:9.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Schonborn Saga

At last the semester is complete! Now I have some time... for the Christmas rush. Despite my desire to write a more in-depth analyis, I will have to be satisfied with merely pointing you to the latest exchange in the Schönborn offensive on evolution and design:

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, "The Designs of Science," First Things 159 (January 2006): 34-38.

The piece addresses Steve Barr's response in FT to Schönborn's controversial New York Times op-ed this summer:

Stephen M. Barr, The Design of Evolution," First Things 156 (October 2005): 9-12.

Also interesting are the Cardinal's Vienna catecheses on creation:

Recent posts on this general topic:

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Wasted Bullet

In case the barrage of stories praising his "legacy" hasn't tipped you off... yes, John Lennon was shot 25 years ago today.

Let's be honest: the guy was a great musician, arguably among the best, but no philosopher. Contrary to the American habit of equating profound emotion with depth of substance, most of his ideas were pretty, well...ungood. The best that can be said of them is that they were lukewarm and derivative.

Who else but a white limosine liberal would be gullible enough to believe that to banish all strife and suffering, we need only "peace"?

I put peace in quotation marks because his idea of it wasn't based on the right ordering of society (i.e., justice), but on the shallow standard of lack of conflict. The "free love" Lennon proposed as panacea is an intrinsic disorder. (As Woody Allen taught us, everyone pays for sex, whether they know it or not.) At the very least there would be hurt feelings among the jilted lovers. (No, Mr. Lennon, no one ever fought over love and sex. Roight.)

In one pretentious song he imagines "all the people living for today." The existential myth: we needn't order our actions according to the actual structure of the world, but instead we'll find paradise by ignoring all that rot and concentrating on the here and now: here in my now and what I want. As if mankind's hyper-obtrusive self-centeredness were a plausible foundation for peace and harmony!

It's such low-lying fruit that the observation can only be a cliche. The obvious one-line reply to Lennon's "Imagine...Nothing to kill or die for\ No religion too..." was made by a contemporary of his, a man who suffered (and died) for his beliefs and for others and whose religion gave self-sacrifice a transcendent value: "A man who won't die for something is not fit to live."2

What a contrast, Martin Luther King, Jr. makes with Lennon: a giant next to a moral midget!

As a human being John Lennon was like all of us, a child of God, and thus possessed of a dignity surpassing the whole remainder of the universe. For that reason his death is a tragedy. But it needs to be observered that while figures like King die for their beliefs, Lennon died merely for his fame; his beliefs weren't worth a bullet.3


1. Originally I thought to call this post "John Lenin." The man has some biographical affinities with Marx, but the comparison would grant him much more weight than he merits. (More on Communism.)

2. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963 (A reply eight years previous!); cf. "A man who won't die for something is not fit to live." —Decimus Junius Juvenal, Satires (VIII, 244)

3. ...and certainly not all the media retrospectives!

John Lennon, "Imagine," Imagine (1971).

Woody Allen, dir., Shadows and Fog (1992).

Kleinmann (Allen). I've never paid for sex in my life.
Prostitute (Tomlin). You just think you haven't.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Double Homicide

Science News reviews a couple New England Journal of Medicine articles on maternal deaths from the abortion pill RU-486.1 In the five years of the pill's availability, four otherwise healthy women died of toxic shock after being "treated." All four developed vaginal infections of a microbe called Clostridium sordellii. Why?

Ralph P. Miech, a physician at Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, R.I., suspects that quick-responding immune cells typically fend off C. sordellii infections. Mifepristone may sabotage this defense in certain women. How that occurs, he acknowledges, "is unknown."

When you're dealing with a state as intimate to a woman's being as pregnancy, it seems unsurprising that ending it has radical repercussions on the woman herself. The further commentary is illuminating.

If there is a connection between the treatment and the fatalities, says Michael F. Greene, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, these data suggest a risk of about 1 death per 100,000 patients getting mifepristone. That's about 10 times the risk of death for a surgical abortion during the first 7 weeks of pregnancy, when mifepristone is used, Greene comments in NEJM.

If the risk of fatality is ten times that of surgical abortion, that's rather remarkable for a "treatment" that our betters have told us is completely safe,... pay no attention,... move along.

Even more illuminating is the incidence relative to death among women at large (not just RU-486 "patients"); the researchers found only 9 deaths from the same microbe-induced toxic shock unconnected with the abortion pill in the 25 years between 1977 and 2002. In what population were these deaths? Worldwide or only the U.S.? Science News doesn't say. But even if only the U.S. that would make the result 9 deaths from over 130 million women in 25 years. If the incidence of death linked to RU-486 were merely normal, we would expect 113 deaths in five years or 565 in 25 years. That makes deaths by toxic shock over 141 times more likely with RU-486 than without.2

Of course, these numbers need to be put in perspective with other causes of death (getting run over by a car, dying in a plane crash,...). But you still gotta wonder what our betters mean by "safe."


1. The mortality rate among the children targeted by this "medicine" is undoubtedly close to 100%.

2. The article says the risk from surgical abortion is ten times less than for RU-486. So it must be that having a surgical abortion directly increases one's risk of dying 14 times. That's not including all the indirect ways that abortion results in the death of the abortive mother (depression, suicide, illness, etc.). See Elliot Institute, press release, "Abortion Nearly Four Times Deadlier Than Childbirth," June 2000.

Nathan Seppa, "Rare but Fatal Outcome: Four deaths may trace to abortion pill" Science News 168:23 (December 3, 2005), 358, 360. [online article for subscribers only; References and Sources]

Michael F. Greene, "Fatal Infections Associated with Mifepristone-Induced Abortion" New England Journal of Medicine 353:22 (December 1, 2005), 2317-2318.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Speaking about Ensoulment

A prime focus abortion debate is the timing of "ensoulment," that is, when the soul enters the human embryo and makes it fully human. The language of this issue is a great obstacle, because there are two notions of the soul easily confused.

The more common understanding of "soul" is the invisible, supernatural part of the human being, the spirit, that will survive our bodies. Being wholly immaterial and most evident in intellectual acts, it is understandably difficult to point to evidence of its presence in any but a conscious, fully formed human.

The concept of soul more relevant to abortion is that of the natural form of the body: what holds its parts together and animates it. Unlike the spiritual soul, this natural soul is manifestly evident from the first moment of conception, and historically the law has been quick to recognize the rights of the unborn thus ensouled. Chapter 8 of the NCBC's Handbook on Critical Life Issues documents the evolution of laws regarding the unborn through the centuries as medical knowledge of life in utero has grown.

Already in 1823, a standard American work on law, Elements of Medical Jurisprudence, by Theodore Beck and John Beck, argued for considering "vitality" from the moment of conception on grounds of reason and physiology....

In 1803, the first British statute against abortion condemned as a felony any attempt to procure an abortion [and] cleared up any confusion in common law about the act of abortion before quickening: it was a felony.

The significance of quickening, the point at which the mother can feel the child stir in her womb, is that it was regarded as the time when the soul entered the developing body. In the 18th century, Blackstone had set it at the point at which the fetus was to be regarded as living legally.

But the advances of medical science have clearly demonstrated that the child is ensouled from conception. It is not the mother's body that assembles the embryonic body; she only delivers the nutrients that the embryo itself arranges into itself. Certainly, in the earliest stages of zygotic development, the cellular machinery from the egg's cytoplasm plays an essential role in "jumpstarting" the process, but the force of the new life is itself indispensibly central.

Science refutes the old assumption that the fetal soul enters an already assembled body. Rather the soul is present from the beginning and is the primary architect of its body. We of the modern age take too much for granted modern science's revelation of natural wonders. The reason previous ages didn't criminalize abortion throughout pregnancy is that they had no idea how early the natural soul of the developing child manifests its presence.

We who seek to defend that life need to be clear that we base our defence of unborn humanity not by pulling some sort of invisible, supernatural spirit out of rhetorical thin air, but by simply following the evidence that modern science presents to us so clearly.

John A. Leies, Donald G. McCarthy and Edward J. Bayer, Handbook on Critical Life Issues, ed. Louise A. Mitchell (Boston: National Catholic Bioethics Center, 2004), ch. 8. [The book itself is burdened by an easily misunderstood definition of the human being]

Also: Robert P. George, "Statement(joined by Dr. Gomez-Lobo)" in President's Bioethics Council, Human Cloning and Human Dignity (Washington, D.C.: 2002), 258-266.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Essential Father

In case you've missed it, the November Touchstone contains a number of good articles on marriage and family. One article in particular deserves to be highlighted:

W. Bradford Wilcox, "Reconcilable Differences: What Social Sciences Show About the Complementarity of the Sexes & Parenting," 32. (Sadly unavailable online.)

Wilcox sketches the respective indispensible contributions that father and mother contribute to the upbringing of children, but concentrates on the underappreciated role of fathers.

[T]here is considerable evidence that paternal involvement is associated with higher rates of educational and occupational attainment, self-confidence, and more pro-social behavior for boys and girls....

Because of the smaller role they play in procreation and because they do not have the same hormonal priming to engage in nurturing behavior as mothers do, fathers are—to some degree—more distant from their children and, more generally, from the daily emotional dynamics of family life than are mothers. Although this distance can be a liability if fathers are neglectful..., if can be an asset if fathers take advantage of this distance to engage their children in a distinctly fatherly way...

But this only makes sense. As Aristotle notes, we use "male" analogically to refer to that which brings forth life in another and "female" for that which brings forth life in itself (On the Generation of Animals I:2). So for example, we refer to Earth as mother and God as father. The emotional detachment of fathers from their children is closely related to the characteristic distance of the masculine consciousness from the senses, in contrast to the proximity of the female consciousness to the senses. (These relations find expression in characteristic length of hair.) As Wilcox notes, mothers are hormonally "primed" to be responsive; among these hormones, estrogen plays a central role in both responsiveness (along with oxytocin) and in strength of sense impression.

A passage from sociologist David Popenoe summarizes the complementary parenting styles of fathers and mothers:

The complimentarity of male and female parenting styles is striking and of enormous importance to a child's overall development.... [F]athers express more concern for the child's long-term development, while mother's focus on the child's immediate well-being (which, of course, in its own way has everything to do with a child's long-term well-being.)... [T]he disciplinary approach of fathers tends to be "firm" while that of mothers tends to be "responsive." While mothers provide an important flexibility and sympathy in their discipline, fathers provide ultimate predictability and consistency. Both dimensions are critical for an efficient, balanced, and humane childrearing regime.

The article's bibliography is itself a valuable contribution and summarizes some of the great resources of modern sociology at the disposal of anyone seeking to defend the traditional (and natural) structure of the family.

W. Bradford Wilcox, "Reconcilable Differences: What Social Sciences Show About the Complementarity of the Sexes & Parenting," Touchstone (November 2005), 32.

Along similar lines: Marriage Sprung from the Earth

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Gratitude and Hope

"Lack of gratitude is despair."

This message is from a marqee along my morning route, and despite its ringing true, it took me a while to figure out why.

No matter how much we have, without acknowledging its origin, without appreciating its gratuitousness, we cannot hope. Everyone knows deep down that we don't ultimately control our own lives. If what we have is not given by Someone and we can only depend on our own slender efforts, then ultimately there is no guarantee that future events will work to our good.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Creation, Atheism, and Darwinisms

Zenit reports that Pope Benedict spoke yesterday on the mercy of God and how it is evident in creation:

The first visible sign of this divine charity—says the Psalmist—is to be sought in creation. Then history enters. The gaze, full of admiration and wonder, pauses first of all on creation: the heavens, the earth, the waters, the sun, the moon and the stars.

Even before discovering the God who reveals himself in the history of a people, there is a cosmic revelation, open to all, offered to the whole of humanity by the only Creator, "God of gods" and "Lord of lords" (cf. verses 2-3).

He concluded his official remarks by referencing St. Basil's commentary on the opening of Genesis:

"'In the beginning God created heaven and earth.' My word yields, overcome by the wonder of this thought" [Ref].

In fact, although some, "deceived by the atheism they bear within them, imagined the universe deprived of a guide and order, at the mercy of chance," the sacred writer instead "has immediately enlightened our mind with the name of God at the beginning of the narrative, saying: 'In the beginning God created.' And what beauty this order has!" [Ref].

"Therefore, if the world had a beginning and was created, you have to seek the one who initiated it and who is its Creator ... Moses has prepared you with his teaching, imprinting on our souls as a seal or phylactery the most holy name of God, when he says: 'In the beginning God created.' The blessed nature, goodness free from envy, he who is the object of love on the part of all reasoning beings, the beauty greater than any that can be desired, the beginning of beings, the source of life, the light of understanding, the inaccessible wisdom, in a word, He 'in the beginning created heaven and earth'" [Ref].

At the end of the audience, the Holy Father added extemporaneously:

I believe the words of this fourth-century Father are of amazing timeliness, when he says some, "deceived by the atheism they bear within them, imagined the universe deprived of a guide and order, at the mercy of chance." How many are these "some" today?

Deceived by atheism, they believe and try to demonstrate that it is scientific to think that everything lacks a guide and order, as if they were at the mercy of chance. The Lord, with sacred Scripture, awakens the drowsy reason and says to us: In the beginning is the creative Word. In the beginning the creative Word—this Word that has created everything, which has created this intelligent plan, the cosmos—is also Love.

Let us allow ourselves to be awakened by this Word of God. Let us pray that he clear our minds so that we will be able to perceive the message of creation, inscribed also in our hearts: The beginning of everything is creative Wisdom and this Wisdom is love and goodness: "Eternal is his mercy."

The Popes remarks call for an underscoring of the point I've been making here recently: atheism derives no support from Darwinism, once one understands the scientific claims of Darwinism correctly. The Pope's remarks are not a rejection of science, but of the unwarranted extrapolation of science to say something beyond its authority.

Only by misconceiving evolutionary theory as a complete causal explanation of the origin of species can it be said to support atheism... or have anything at all to say on the subject. The theory's creative source of genetic novelty, "random mutations," makes no claim about the specific cause of those mutations (what precipitates the laws of physics to act just when and how they do) and, indeed, no one expects a scientific theory to specify causality so finely. This dearth of specificity leaves a wide berth for the workings of Providence or whatever sort of cause (space aliens?) one might want to insert into the gap. Moreover it is characteristic of science to mistake the workings of intelligence for chance.

So in summary, the belief that Darwinism has any implications one way or the other (for or against atheism) is a grievous (but all too common) misunderstanding of evolutionary theory and the role of chance in science.

The well intentioned folks who oppose the teaching of Darwin in schools have been deceived into thinking the theory atheistic. The irony is that in their efforts they have unwittingly imbibed the misconception from which so many atheists suffer. The miseducated "brights" who sport Darwin amphibians on their cars have successfully deceived them into drinking from the same punch bowl. Tragic.

" Commentary on Psalm 135(136):1-9: From Created Works One Ascends to the Greatness of God," Zenit (2005-11-09).

"Creation Reveals God and His Love, Says Benedict XVI: Comments on Psalm 135(136) at General Audience," Zenit (2005-11-09).

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Ethical Embryonic Stem Cells?

At the risk of spending too much time blogging....

Science News notes two techniques designed to side-step ethical concerns in obtaining embryonic stem cells: Do No Harm: Stem cells created without destroying healthy embryos (Week of Oct. 22, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 17 , p. 259)

The first plucks a single cell from an eight-cell blastocyst (early embryo) as they do in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. The other (about which I've written before) creates embryonic clones (from somatic cells), but missing a gene essential to implantation.

Perhaps you've already realized that neither of these techniques effectively avoid the core moral objections to embryonic stem cells (aside from the first's reliance on IVF). As the article notes,

Although these methods may ease ethical concerns for some people, others may view them as just "a new version of embryo destruction," says Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She notes that research hasn't ruled out the possibility that a single cell plucked from an early embryo, as in Lanza's work, can form a new embryo. Furthermore, some people may view the abnormal clumps of cells missing cdx2 in the Meissner-Jaenisch study as "terminally ill" embryos rather than just masses of cells.

Science News deserves credit for exploring the ethical issues, and these researchers deserve credit for trying (albeit unsuccessfully) to resolve the ethical problems with embryonic stem cells.

I'm still beginning my study of the biochemistry of cellular determination (in early development), so this is just me thinking out loud: it seems to me that it should be possible in principle to grow embryonic clones in a chemical environment that makes them "think" they should become part of an individual, instead of a full individual. So far I can't any problem (ethical or technical) with this approach, though my gut reaction is that it's just too easy not to have some invisible difficulty.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Dawkins's Faith

Just ran across this amusing picture put together by Julian at trinetizen:

I find your lack of faith disturbing

The quotation, in case you don't recognize it, is from Return of the Jedi and Julian, who is apparently a fan of Dawkins, says, "Note, how Dawkins looks a lot like the insidious Palpatine in pic above, thus the Darth Vader quote and lightning streaks." (Palpatine, to those unfamiliar with Star Wars lore, is the real name of the arch-antagonist of the series, the Emperor.)

Aside from the sheer entertainment value, I've posted this photo because (whether consciously or not) it reflects the truth that Dawkins's position depends on faith just as much as that of the religious people he so despises.

Here's an excellent analysis of one of Dawkins's books:

Stephen M. Barr, "The Devil’s Chaplain Confounded," First Things 145 (August/September 2004): 25-31.

Barr does a great job exposing the inconsistency of Dawkins's world-view.

An interesting quotation from Dawkins:

I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all 'design' anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection," said Prof Dawkins in the responses published yesterday on (Telegraph UK 05/01/2005)

As any Darwinist will admit, natural selection doesn't create anything: it only weeds out the unfit forms created by "random mutation." So Dawkins's conception of the origin of the universe is purely negative: a "theology" of death.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Intelligence Transcends Science

In my last post I discussed the very real limits of science's powers and how they prevent Darwinism from saying anything meaningful about the real cause of particular genetic novelty. It bears repeating that in neither that post nor the present am I by any means arguing with the scientific theory of Darwinism (or "evolution" as the historically and philosophically unschooled call it) in these posts. My intention is merely to show how irrelevant evolutionary theory is to our culture at large, and thus that the whole "evolution vs. ID" flap is a tremendous waste of time.

The main point of my writing here is to remedy a fault of the last post by showing just how unextraordinary it is that science says "chance" (i.e., "we don't know") when the actual cause could well be an intelligence.

To illustrate this ordinariness, let's take an example. Let's say a post-modern anthropologist is monitoring your home power consumption. When your family goes on vacation you have one of those automatic switches to turn the lights on at regular intervals, so naturally the anthropologist sees that the power varies in a regular way (and could even find a mathematical function to describe it). When your family's at home (say, during the summer), on the other hand, the power consumption is erratic, seemingly random with all your comings and goings (outdoor activities, home repair, household appliances, etc.).

The way many scientists interpret data these days, the anthropologist might interpret the regularity to indicate an intelligence at work (or at least a kind of order) when you're on vacation, but no intelligence when you're home! So if he were asked when you are at home, he might give you the exact opposite of what is actually the case.

Of course, he could tell the truth, if he included more information in his research: say, by observing your comings and goings from your home.

This backward result is an inseparable part of the nature of science. The great virtue of science is that we can see all kinds of new things if we methodologically limit our considerations. I wouldn't be a scientist if I didn't believe it to be a very powerful type of human knowledge—but it is very limited. Notice in the example that the scientist only draws from a narrow amount of information, excluding other, non-quantitative data. With the limited amount of information, it is no surprise that he doesn't arrive at the full truth in his conclusions.

In general, if we insist that only those things exist that we can measure (put a number on) that we can deal with scientifically, then there's no wonder we conclude that the most important things at life don't exist!

Science generalizes from regularities. It doesn't attempt to explain particular events in themselves, but only particular events as part of a larger, overarching pattern. But intelligences act in concrete situations in light of particular facts; these particulars are necessarily excluded from science's limited scope. Scientific generalizations necessarily exclude at least one intelligence: the scientist's. So is it any surprise that science excludes other intelligences?

Anthony Rizzi, to whom I owe a great intellectual debt, discusses chance in a way that highlights the constricted considerations inherent in science:

Chance is the intersection of two independent lines of causality. If an asteroid is set on a path by an explosion somewhere far from our solar system that ends by intersecting the path of the earth, which was independently set on its path by another event, one calls it chance. In the empiriometric system of Newtonian physics, it can be thought of as initial conditions on the equations of motion. Take a simpler but, in principle, equivalent case. Think of two balls on a pool table. they will only hit if given certain velocities and starting positions. If they hit, the fact that they hit is what we call chance in the true sense. In such a case there is no cause in the system (pool table plus balls). There is no being in the system that can be considered responsible for the collision. hence, it appears as an irrational element. Even in this case, however, as one can readily see from the principle of causality, there must be a cause. In the case of our pool ball, someone shot one ball at the other. In the case of the asteroid, God [ultimately] set the initial conditions. Hence, even in the most extreme possible ontological case, chance is a relative term. Absolute chance is a complete irrationality: being coming from non-being.

Darwinism (as Dawkins calls evolution) relies on random mutations for the genetic novelty on which natural selection works. As we've seen, randomness or chance is always relative to the limits of one's considerations: a larger, more encompassing frame can always include the explanation. The scientific theory of Darwinism (properly speaking) says nothing about the cause of the mutations behind genetic novelty, but only that it can't speak of them. Only when Darwinism becomes an unscientific ideology does it arrogate to itself the denial of causation.

Darwinism, like any scientific theory, casts a very broad, but coarse net. Its failure to capture the slippery eel of intelligence indicates nothing about the presence or absence of intelligence.

Anthony Rizzi, The Science Before Science: A Guide to Thinking in the 21st Century (Baton Rouge: IAP Press, 2004), 256.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Providence and Chance

For my bio class I've been investigating Darwinism and I promised to write something about my explorations. I present some preliminary conclusions here.

Now I need to warn you that my results are a bit unsatisfying to a compulsive contrarian like me. Yes, I'm proposing a way that Darwinism and Providence are compatible. But I think this explanation is a little different from the usual hand-wavy, quasi-philosophic incantations that accompany such apologetics. The argument rests purely in ordinary non-sectarian reason (assuming from religion only the definitions of its terms). The upshot is that the conclusion refrains from shuffling religion off to "the kiddie table," that is, to its own "magisterial realm" completely divorced from the visible, real world.1

The Christian (and I surmise traditional Jewish) idea of Providence is God's complete and ultimate control over every single event in His creation: strictly speaking THERE IS NO CHANCE:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will.2

Modern science invokes chance when a system involves too many complications to treat in detail or with generality. The classic example is tossing a coin: a physicist could model all the classical mechanics of the process, but there are too many uncertainties in measurement of boundary conditions to predict outcome with any accuracy, so he just treats it as a fifty-fifty chance of each side landing up.

In other words, science invokes chance to express ignorance of causality.3

So my basic point is that the "random" mutations that Darwinians use to "explain" the genetic novelty that natural selection works4 on is no explanation at all, but really just a way of saying "we can't explain the particular events that caused adaptive mutations." Now, I'm not faulting Darwinists for invoking chance, as it is almost certainly impossible to say why a particular cosmic ray struck a particular codon in the DNA of a particular sparrow's germ-line cell to make the species mutate in a special adaptive way. Such are the limits of modern science.5

This is where Providence has an opening to big enough to pilot an aircraft carrier through.6

Of course, some Darwinists will derogate such an explanation as a "God in the gaps" theory. Fine. But labeling an explanation "chance" is no better than labeling it "God." Neither Providence nor chance is a scientific explanation: Providence isn't "scientific" (that is, naturalistic) and chance isn't an explanation.

So despite my visceral reaction against saying it, I have to conclude that Darwinism, as a scientific theory, is not incompatible with Providence.

The Limited Efficacy of Numbers

The problem is when some Darwinists try to extend the reach of science to the domain where science must remain silent. There are permanent limits to scientific methodology, especially the quantitative.7 What's problematic is the claim that because we can't scientifically find a cause then there must be no cause ("chance").8

Atheistic Darwinists have completely over-reached when they invoke Darwinism to deny evidence of design in creation and thus of the reality of its Creator.9

This over-reach is essentially what Cardinal Schönborn was getting at when he clarified his July 7 New York Times op-ed:

[N]eo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science.

The key word phrase is "absolutely unguided." The touchstone of modern science is measurement. Science can no more speak definitively of absolutely everything than it can measure absolutely everything. One can certainly hypothesize that the universe is infinite, for example, but such an assertion can never be scientifically confirmed.

The Panda's Thumb discussion thought-provokingly flagged the Cardinal's clarification as inconsistent with the op-ed. Among the sentences highlighted:

Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

What might have annoyed them is the phrase "overwhelming evidence... in biology." On the surface there does seem to be an inconsistency: on the one hand, the Cardinal is saying there's overwhelming evidence for design in biology and on the other hand he's saying that scientists can validly say there's no evidence of design.

The difference turns on what one means by "biology."

On the one hand, the design in nature is evident to anyone who looks at the order in the natural world with an open mind: the merest child spontaneously asks who made the world.10 Biology, in this broad, traditional sense, can't help but see design.

On the other hand, biology—like everything else these days—is following physics in becoming uniformly quantitative. Concentrating purely on quantity strips the world of the living enfleshment of qualities.11 This is not to say that quantities are not important (could I be a physicist and believe that?), but simply that they don't suffice to explain the world completely. It is biology in this narrow, quantitative sense that is blind to order and design. After all, how does one reduce to mere numbers a multi-faceted, metaphysical reality like order12?

So the problem is not the scientific theory of Darwinism; the problem is taking Darwinism to be a complete, comprehensive explanation of life in general, and human life in particular. As far as religion is concerned, Darwinism is not a wide-ranging wolf, but a yipping yard-dog.

Conventional wisdom would say that science is master of the visible world but might gratuitously grant religion a small fiefdom of reality. What I'm saying is that science (Darwinian) has a small kingdom that poses no threat to the very real and sizable domain that religion owns outright. There is a frontier between the two that science is impotent to cross—whether or not it can see it. That Darwinists might "deign" to tolerate religion is like believing the fantastic claims of the businessman in The Little Prince to own unreachable planets.

Why the Popular Mistrust?

Scientists assure us Darwinism is scientifically true, but with all their equivocations (one example discussed here) it's hard not to suspect there's an extra-scientific agenda lurking in the background, especially when you've got Doctors Gould and Dawkins weilding Darwin as a club for atheism.

Darwinian friends, let's be reasonable here. If this sort of evangelizing atheistic Darwinists—the kind that superciliously affix "Darwin" amphibian logos to their cars— misrepresent Darwinism, then why aren't "scientific" proponents of Darwinism evangelizing just as sincerely against these people's misconception that Darwinism supports atheism as they are for teaching Darwinism in schools? And if not, how can anyone seriously believe that teaching Darwinism in public schools is non-sectarian?

To swallow that fish-story would really require "blind" faith.

The Deeper Lesson

Gould, Dawkins & Company insinuate that if God's effects aren't scientifically measurable, then He isn't real. That's the real danger: failing to realize that science is not the last word on absolutely everything. To see only the magnified shadow is to make the Darwinian mouse that casts it your master. Don't grant atheistic evolutionists that power.

As great as modern science is, it has very real limits—limits that all of us, scientists and citizens, disregard at the cost of our freedom.


1. Cf. Gould's "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" (NOMA).

2. Mt 10:29, cf. Lk 12:6.

3. For the philosophically minded, chance is the intersection of two otherwise independent lines of causality (Aristotle). You go to the market and happen to run into a friend. Neither of you coordinated the meeting. There was no interaction between the lines of causality: they are independent. "Chance" doesn't explain the meeting, but can only express our ignorance of the cause. Western civilization, and indeed science itself, is built on the belief that everything in the visible world has a cause, whether we can know it or not. To define chance as the cause is to resort to pure irrationality.

4. As you can read in any biology textbook, natural selection only eliminates individuals from populations, but doesn't explain where the genetic variation/novelty came from in the first place. Random mutation is the empiriological explanation for genetic novelty. You can think of the gene pool of a population as precisely a pool of genes or characteristics. Natural selection only siphons off and disposes of some of the pool, narrowing it, not expanding it. Random mutation is what causes the pool to broaden, according to Darwinists.

5. What I am faulting them for is saying that chance is an explanation.

6. This is not to say that God sticks his finger into the universe everytime there's a genetic mutation, but that every mutation is part of his Design from all eternity; there need be no break in the self-consistency of the physical universe. On the other hand this doesn't necessitate deism, cf. Jn 1 and Col 1. See also J. Pelikan's chapter on the historical Christian belief in Christ as Logos and Archetype of creation in Jesus Through the Centuries.

7. For example, the ideology called "empiricism" says that only the measureable is real; unfortunately "empiricism" is itself immeasureable.

8. This very same disease afflicts the conventional, Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

9. See St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, chapter 1, itself a paraphrase of Wisdom 13. Also the pronouncements of the First Vatican Council.

10. Formally philosphically, the principle of sufficient causality tells us that the maker of a thing can have no less perfections than the thing he makes, so whatever perfections anything in the universe has must be attributable to its Creator, and primarily these are the transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, Unity, etc.; but also the rational perfections of human beings: intelligence and will.

11. For more on qualitative (non-ID) biology, see the Nature Institute.

12. Negentropy (negative entropy) is a likely candidate, but is only analogous to order. Information is another proxy, and the attempt to equate order with information can have validity, but limited.

Christoph Schönborn, "Finding Design in Nature," New York Times (July 7, 2005).

John L. Allen, Jr., "Follow up news: Schönborn and evolution," National Catholic Reporter (August 5, 2005 Vol. 4, No. 43).

Stephen M. Barr, "The Devil’s Chaplain Confounded," First Things 145 (August/September 2004): 25-31.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Unforgivable Sin

I did wrong.

The Chronicle of Higher Education article I mentioned previously said "we shouldn't teach students about intelligent design" (emphasis added).

Without thinking of what I was doing, I made copies of this article that I distributed to my class for discussion. SO I HAVE TRANSGRESSED THE ARTICLE'S INJUNCTION. May the politically correct powers that be forgive me!

If this weren't a private school, I would expect an ACLU lawyer to haul me before a judge—and not for a wedding (unless of course the lawyer were a man and the case were across the border in Massachusetts. That's the only kind of marriage the ACLU seems to like nowadays. Ugh!).

PLEASE forgive me, PC Powers!

Harold Morowitz, Robert Hazan, and James Trefil, "Intelligent Design Has No Place in the Science Curriculum," Chronicle of Higher Education (September 2, 2005), B6-B8. [subscription required]

Monday, October 03, 2005

Judicial Irony

It's interesting that the Reuters story on the Miers nomination, "Bush pick for high court outrages conservatives," mentions Abe Fortas:

Manny Miranda, head of a conservative coalition called The Third Branch Conference, said Miers was "the most unqualified choice" for the high court since Lyndon Johnson tried to make Abe Fortas chief justice in 1968.

Fortas's name came up in the discussions over the judicial filibuster. He is the only Supreme Court nominee ever filibustered, though it was a bipartisan effort without support of either party's leadership.

The Republicans are still itching to pull the trigger (the poorly named "nuclear option") on a Democratic judicial filibuster, an opportunity much more readily available had Bush nominated someone in the mold of Thomas or Scalia, both of whom he has explicitly praised. But judging from initial reaction, it sounds that in the impossible event Harriet Miers were to draw a filibuster, it would be more likely to come from conservatives rather than liberals.

It's hard to know which side of the fence Bush is playing. The line between genius and sheer stupidity is often very fine.

Steve Holland, "Bush pick for high court outrages conservatives," Reuters (October 3, 2005, 1:00pm).

Monday, September 26, 2005

Macro-Micro Controversy

Still very busy with classes and not much (or much time) to report. Nevertheless, in rooting around the web about the evolution controversy, I ran across this article by Bruce Alberts and Jay Labov, both from from the National Academies of Science, on teaching evolution in schools:

[...]this lesson plan uses the terms “microevolution” (defined by Intelligent Design proponents as genetic changes within existing species) and “macroevolution” (defined by proponents of Intelligent Design as genetic changes that lead to speciation) in ways that make them seem like two distinct processes. In fact, evolutionary theory makes no such distinction; the processes that lead to changes within species, when accumulated over time, also can give rise to new species.

Interesting that it is precisely the most controverted aspect of natural selection that the NAS wants to equivocate: the idea that micro- and macro-evolution are absolutely identical is exactly what needs to be proven!

Meanwhile, the Discovery Institute's 2003 document examining the treatment various textbooks give the macro/micro debate claims that

[t]he scientific controversy over whether processes observable within existing species and gene pools (microevolution) can account for large-scale changes over geological time (macroevolution) continues to this day.
and gives quotations from recent papers and says that their authors are all "believers in Darwinian evolution, and that all of them think the controversy will eventually be resolved within the framework of that theory."

On the other side, I ran across this page that claims to give examples of "speciation events" (i.e., macro-evolutionary). I'm making inquiries about the truth of these examples, but I'd appreciate hearing from any experts out there in web land.

Whether these examples hold water or not, any intellectually honest person has got to wonder why the Academies feels the need to blur the macro/micro distinction without scientific inquiry.

Strictly speaking, such a pattern of obfuscation is only circumstantial evidence of untruth. It's possible these guys are being completely honest. It could be they are telling the truth, but just feel guilty about it because it justifies (in their minds) an impure intention.

My own intention is to give them the benefit of the doubt, while such doubt exists, despite their apparent determination to demonstrate guilt.

Bruce Alberts and Jay B. Labov "From the National Academies: Teaching the Science of Evolution," Cell Biology Education (Volume 3 Summer 2004).

Sunday, September 18, 2005

September News

It's been quite a while since I've posted. And I owe everyone (who may happen to be reading) an explanation.

It's actually very good news. After over two years of unemployment, I got a job! And not only just a job, but a great job. I'm teaching biology (mainly) at a college in New Hampshire. That's the good news. The bad news is that all the class preps and lab organization keep me rather busy. That's the reason I've been unable to post.

I wish I could say that despite the constraints on my time I am going to post regularly, but I'm afraid I honestly can't. I owe it to my students to be there for them full-time. I will post when time allows though.

More good news: Since I'm teaching biology, I have a unique opportunity to look in-depth at the arguments for and against Darwinian evolution. My reading so far makes me suspect that Darwinism is neither all its proponents would have us believe nor quite as meritless as its critics allege.

On the purely philosophical level, I think part of the dispute arises over the meaning of "randomness." Scientists often use words in different ways than the rest of us, and I think they mean "apparent randomness" (that is, the limits of science keep us from finding a cause). Anyway, I'm hoping to have something to say in about six weeks and the time to say it in.

On the subject of randomness and evolution, there's a worthwhile analysis of Darwinism in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Harold Morowitz, Robert Hazan, and James Trefil, "Intelligent Design Has No Place in the Science Curriculum," Chronicle of Higher Education (September 2, 2005), B6-B8. [subscription required]

The article's argument against teaching ID in the classroom (or at least defending Darwinism from ID arguments) is disingenuous, and it's another data point in Darwinist PC party line. The pull-quote that encapsulates the Orwellian double-speak:

We shouldn't teach students about intelligent design for the same reason we don't teach them that the Earth is flat. [emphasis added]

The slight of hand here is to draw a parallel that isn't parallel. We may not teach students that the Earth is flat, but when we teach them that it's not flat, we are refuting the flat-Earth argument, that is, teaching about it. Similarly, even though we may not be teaching students that ID is either true or false, any honest attempt at science education (as opposed to scientistic indoctrination) will teach them why Darwinism is either true or false by teaching them why ID is false or true. This means teaching about ID!

Yes, my friends, science is based on reason and any scientific belief can be defended by reason. It's sad that has to be said to supposed proponents of science.

The laudable part of the article (very laudable) was its analysis of Darwinism into two camps of explanations based either on determinism or chance. Here's the best paragraph:

It seems to us that the frozen-accident theory of life's origin is at best unsatisfying, and may be unworthy of the scientific way of approaching the world. To say that a natural process is random is, in effect, an act of surrender, something that should be done only as a last resort. If you read the frozen-accident literature carefully, you often get the feeling that what is really being said is: "My friends and I can't figure out why things happened this way, so it must have been random."

Very, very reasonable. Aristotle couldn't have said it better.

See you in six weeks, if not sooner....

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Another David Souter?

As I frantically prepare for my imminent move, a good friend brought to my attention a couple significant articles linked by GodSpy on the President's nominee to the Supreme Court. (I figured the lives of millions of unborn children might be worth a few minutes away from panicked packing.)

Ask yourself: what do we really know about the President's nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge John G. Roberts, Jr? Why was he given a pass by liberal Democrats? As a recent New Yorker article says:

When we met last week in his Capitol office, it was clear that the Roberts nomination had come as a relief. “There were lots of people we didn’t want, and I made sure he knew what those names were,” Reid said....

Roberts, in Reid’s view, left no doubt that he would be very reluctant to overturn precedents. To do so, Roberts had said, the Court would first have to consider a series of objective criteria, two of which stood out: whether a precedent fostered stability in the nation; and the extent to which society had come to rely on an earlier ruling, even a dubious one.

Reid more than once compared Roberts to Justice David Souter, who was appointed by the first President Bush, in 1990, and today is widely detested by conservatives because he frequently sides with the more liberal Justices.

Perhaps Reid, who is at least nominally pro-life, is providing cover for a fellow pro-lifer.

But now consider this selection from the New York Times:

Judge John G. Roberts Jr., the Supreme Court nominee, gave advice to advocates for gay rights a decade ago, helping them win a landmark 1996 ruling… Romer v. Evans is considered a touchstone in the culture wars, and it produced what the gay rights movement considers its most significant legal victory.

Perhaps the Times is simply trying to unnerve pro-lifers? Maybe.

But you have to wonder how the pro-life base fits into Republican Party political calculus. Does the GOP think it can use the continuing the abortion controversy (created by the Supreme Court) to maintain the loyalty of religious conservatives? I pray that our leaders aren't simply and cynically playing us again.

  • Sheryl Gay Stolberg and David D. Kirkpatrick, "Court Nominee Advised Group on Gay Rights," New York Times (August 5, 2005).

  • Elsa Walsh, "Minority Retort: How a pro-gun, anti-abortion Nevadan leads the Senate’s Democrats," The New Yorker (August 8, 2005).

  • Wednesday, August 03, 2005

    Chasing Wind

    In today's New York Times, Eugene F. Kranz advocates sticking with the space shuttle. His mindless remarks are worth comment, but only because they represent the way too many people in this country "think."

    To read and listen to the coverage about the space shuttle, you would think NASA's mission team has taken careless risks with the lives of the seven astronauts who went into space on the Discovery last Tuesday. During the launching, foam fell off the external tank. For the risk-averse, the only acceptable thing to do now is retire the shuttle program immediately and wait for the divine arrival of the next generation of spacecraft. I am disgusted at the lack of courage and common sense this attitude shows.

    Mr. Kranz is right about one thing: the real problem is not the shuttle. But what he doesn't mention is that the real problem is NASA.

    Yes, Mr. Kranz, we should be willing to endure risk...for good reason. There was a good reason for the Apollo program; there is no reason for the space shuttle. It's called courage if you endure risk for a good purpose; it's called foolhardiness if you take chances for no good reason.

    One poor Darwin Awards winner a while back strapped a rocket to his car and flattened himself into the side of a mountain. Sure he did something risky. But no one calls him brave.

    (As General Patton wisely said, "No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country." I call that common sense.)

    Let there be no mistake: for all NASA's posturing, the shuttle is foolhardiness.

    Eugene F. Kranz, "From Giant Leaps to Baby Steps," New York Times (August 3, 2005).

    Personal Note: I'm away from home the rest of the week. Back next week, but busy with move preparations. Our culture is unreasonably fixated on the new, don't you think? Perenniel truths never go out of style: check out the Real Physics archives while I'm gone.

    Tuesday, August 02, 2005

    Vindicated in Pessimism

    Yes, NASA finally admits that it has to do something about those thingies hanging off the underbelly of the Discovery:

    NASA Sets Spacewalk to Repair Discovery's Heat Shield

    “In the end it came down to be a really simple decision,” said Wayne Hale, NASA’s deputy shuttle program manager, during a briefing here at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC). “We came to the conclusion that we don’t know enough to really feel good about this, so therefore the remedy is easy and we ought to go exercise the remedy.”

    One has to wonder if the delay in this official word of this "simple decision" originates in NASA management's ignorance or obstinance. That is to say, is the cause management's famous lack of technical training or its simple unwillingness to admit the embarrassing truth?

    CBS news article says

    NASA says the gap filler is not related to the debris that flew off Discovery during liftoff. The problem may not be as serious as the heat shield hole that doomed Columbia shuttle, but for NASA, this is no time to take risks.

    So we have multiple problems here. I hope the repair isn't simply "doing something" for CYA.

    UPDATE: Duncan Maxwell Anderson writes that removing freon from the adhesive to protect the environment has created the "popcorn effect" of loose tiles: The Shuttle's Achilles Heel: Ideology. Additional interesting commentary:

    It is impossible to integrate the contradictory. To whatever extent an engineer is forced to base his decisions, not on the realities of science but on the arbitrary, unpredictable, and often impossible demands of a politicized system, he is stymied. Yet this politicizing is an unavoidable consequence of governmental control over scientific research and development.

    Monday, August 01, 2005

    Scuttle the Shuttle

    I've got a lot of personal things on my mind these days, but the latest on space shuttle Discovery (STS-114) galls me enough to take the time to comment.

    NASA's official word:

    Discovery remains in good shape. In a press conference Sunday afternoon, mission manager Wayne Hale said, “There are no new anomalies to speak of.”

    Inspections of the reinforced carbon-carbon panels that protect the wing leading edges and nose cap appear to show no serious threat to a safe return to Earth. Engineers and mission managers continue to look at two gap fillers, extending from the Shuttle’s underside. The ceramic coated-fabric gap fillers are used to protect against hot gas from seeping into gaps between the Shuttle’s protective tiles. (viewed July 31, 11:00pm)

    Meanwhile journalists are too lazy or thick to do more than repeat the official line:

    Managers at Nasa have decided that Colonel Eileen Collins and her team of six astronauts will remain in orbit for one day longer than planned, to assist their two colleagues aboard the International Space Station (ISS) with some chores.

    A likely story: nothing wrong with the shuttle, but we need you highly trained specialists up there to change light bulbs....


    In actuality "no new anomalies" is just officialese for "situation normal: all f***d up."

    In grounding the shuttle, NASA is edging toward what it should have done a long time ago: the shuttle should be permanently retired. What's the point of the space shuttle? To ferry building materials and supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). What's the point of the ISS? To give a plausible reason for keeping the shuttle around.1 A nice, clean exercise in circular reasoning.

    In grad school an eminent astrophysicist (long since departed to another institution) let me in on a trade secret: NASA will cut the funding of any scientist who publicly mentions that there is no scientific justification for the shuttle.

    The reusuability of the vehicle's parts give us the idea that it's not as costly as disposable spacecraft. What the shuttle does right, such as launching satellites like Hubble and Chandra, could be done much more cost-effectively with an unmanned launch vehicle. Each shuttle launch costs over a quarter billion dollars. Sending humans into space is a costly enterprise. (Think about it: a human-friendly environment is very heavy. It also requires running safety checks on every piece of equipment sent along, so, for example, a spring doesn't pop off and kill someone.) Compare the shuttle's astronomical price-tag to something on order $10 million for an unmanned launch. And then NASA has the audacity to claim that doing science on the thing saves money! (Sure, over not doing science on the thing.)

    As I discussed in a previous post, the motivation behind the space shuttle is to spread public largesse to influential tech companies. (Nothing's so easy as spending someone else's money, is it?)

    With the Apollo program, we went to the Moon! With the space shuttle, we simply go around in circles... until we run out of orbiters... or astronauts.

    Nothing useful comes out of the shuttle program that couldn't be done more effectively in other ways.

    Bottom line: the space shuttle program is a highly-tech way to kill astronauts.


    1. Supposedly we need the ISS as a stop-over on our way back to the Moon en route to Mars. We're suppoed to believe that since the Apollo program our level of technology has regressed so we can't go directly to the Moon.

    Monday, July 25, 2005

    Critical Lessons

    A few days after writing about the duplicity of the New York Times, I recalled a salient paragraph by Jorge Luis Borges:

    In the third article, "Free Thought and Official Propaganda," [Bertrand Russell] suggests that elementary schools should teach the art of reading newspapers with incredulity. That Socratic discipline would be useful, I believe. Very few of the persons I know have any acquaintance with it. They let themselves be deceived by typographical or syntactical tricks. They think that an event has occurred because it is printed in large black letters. They do not wish to understand that the statement "All the aggressor's attempts to advance beyond B have failed miserably" is merely a euphemistic way to admit the loss of B. What is even worse, they practice a kind of magic: they believe that to express any fear is to collaborate with the enemy. Russell proposes that the State endeavor to immunize its citizens against such deception and trickery. For example, he suggests that school children should study Moniteur bulletins, which were ostensibly triumphant, to learn about Napoléon's last defeats. A typical assignment would be to read about the history of the wars with France in English textbooks, and then to rewrite that history from the French viewpoint.

    Great idea, don't you think? (Russell was often a great thinker, but like too many modern intellectuals he failed to apply his own critical stance to his own ideas: the proverbial "liberal" double standard.)

    The only exception I take to this paragraph is the idea that the State will educate its people to think critically. You might as well put the fox in charge of the henhouse. The last thing in the State's interest is an educated citizenry (such a people might know enough to check its expansion and the erosion of their own liberties!). It is much more realistic that the people themselves to organize such efforts—and it is truly the genius of the American people (as opposed to the British or the Argentines) to organize themselves into such intermediate institutions.

    Jorge Luis Borges, "Two Books," Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952, Ruth L.C. Sims, trans. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), 131.

    Perhaps of interest: Personal Exemption

    Personal Note: My recently acquired job requires me to move in the next few weeks. On top of that I'll be away at a meeting later this week. Posts will be in frequent. Might I suggest looking back at some of my earlier posts during this period? Writing about perenniel themes has the advantage of not losing currency with time.

    Friday, July 22, 2005

    Smithsonian Archives Show Trial Photos

    The Smithsonian has recently discovered some previously unpublished photos of the Scopes "Monkey Trial" (Tennessee vs. John Scopes, 1925). They're worth a gander:

    Unpublished Photographs from 1925 Tennessee vs. John Scopes "Monkey Trial" Found in Smithsonian Archives

    John Scopes, Dayton, Tennessee, June 1925

    Clarence Darrow interrogating William Jennings Bryan (seated, left), July 20, 1925

    (HT: Washington Times, USA Today)

    Posts on Smithsonian's role in the evolution controvery:

    Wednesday, July 20, 2005

    Abyss Calls to Abyss

    Thirty-six years ago today at 10:56 pm EDT, Neal Armstrong descended from the Apollo 11 lunar module and stepped onto the lunar surface. By merely walking on an extra-terrestrial body, the ancient scruples that had deified the heavens were definitively cast down. Armstrong's was the small, even mundane step crowning one of the most awesome human undertakings.

    I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. (President Kennedy, May 25, 1961)

    We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. (President Kennedy, September 12, 1962)

    Is there any contrast so striking as the achievement of the lunar landing compared to NASA's present morass of clueless impotence?

    Why is NASA so helpless? Further, why bother about space anyway?

    These are good questions that only NASA administrators lack the presence of mind to avoid. In the latest New Atlantis, Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society, scrutinizes NASA and President Bush's Mars initiative. Zubrin makes a great pitch for manned missions to Mars. So great that he very nearly rekindles the excitement in a space skeptic like me.

    Critique of NASA and The Plan

    Zubrin takes to task the Aldridge Commission's endorsement of NASA's present listless state. He observes that historically NASA has operated in either of two "modes":

    1. the destination-driven Apollo Mode, and
    2. the production-driven Shuttle Mode.

    In Apollo Mode, technology is devised to serve the mission, while in Shuttle Mode, the mission is devised to farm out money to constituencies, such as NASA labs and technology companies. Almost needless to say, Shuttle Mode is incredibly wasteful and directionless, blowing with the political breeze. The Apollo Mode was not only more successful in achievement, but also in developing technology.

    Furthermore, Zubrin faults NASA's lack of technical expertise on top (causing the often-observed stark division and subsequent miscommunication between managers and engineers that results in disasters like Columbia) and he observes that the great success of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory comes from its directors as well as its managers being superb scientists or engineers.

    Insofar as it gives NASA a definite direction, Zubrin has nothing for praise for President Bush's new space initiative to return us to the Moon and then to Mars. But he doesn't shy from levelling seering criticism at the initiative's wastefully slothful time-table and even more the knuckle-headed implementation plan cooked up by NASA's new Exploration Systems Missions Directorate (ESMD).

    The time-table proposed by the President is so slow that current technology that could be adapted to the new mission will have fallen into years of disuse by the time it is needed. The schedule is so slow that it will vastly balloon the total cost of getting us to Mars. (A good thing if the goal is to buy votes, but a bad thing if your goal is Mars and the national interest.)

    In a word, the problem with ESMD's plan is its extraordinary redundancy and reduplication of effort. Indicative is the third flaw that Zubrin notes:

    [I]t fails to respond to the presidential directive. As currently constituted, the hardware used in Spirals 2 and 3 is used to support lunar missions only, with no regard for Mars requirements. But the president's policy directive clearly specified that a central purpose of the lunar program is to enable sustained human exploration of Mars. These orders were effectively ignored by the designers of the plan."

    The Meaning of It All

    All of these remarks on the implementation of the President's plan ignore the issue of why we should try to send men to Mars. Zubrin turns to this question in his final section.

    [I]n the long run civilizations are built by ideas, not swords. The central idea at the core of Western civilization is that there is an inherent facility in the individual human mind to recognize right from wrong and truth from untruth. This idea is the source of our notions of conscience and science, terms which, not coincidentally, share a common root.

    Both our radical fundamentalist and our totalitarian enemies deny these concepts. They deny the validity of the individual conscience, and they deny the necessity of human liberty, and indeed, consider it intolerable. For them, conscience, reason, and free will must be crushed so that humans will submit to arbitrary and cruel authority.

    Yes! The West will prevail through ideas. Despite the abject terror of European power-elites at admitting it, our civilization is founded on the Christian Faith.1 Medieval Christians preserved what was good of ancient learning after the greed and decadence of pagan wealth hollowed out and imploded the old Empire. And they built a new civilization based on logos, reason, and the Logos. The Renaissance didn't materialize out of thin air, but stood on the shoulders of the steady efforts of the medievals. Without medieval Christians, there would have been no scientific revolution.2

    Yes, that's right, Bob, keep going...!

    Against this foe, science is our strongest weapon, not simply because it produces useful devices and medical cures, but because it demonstrates the value of a civilization based upon the use of reason. There was a time when we celebrated the divine nature of the human spirit by building Gothic cathedrals. Today we build space telescopes. Science is our society’s sacred enterprise [???]; through it we assert the fundamental dignity of man. And because it ventures into the cosmic realm of ultimate truth [???], space exploration is the very banner of science.

    Reading the words I've emphasized was like driving a formula-1 racecar full-throttle over "severe tire damage" spikes. It is possible that "space exploration as religion" is just a rhetorical tool that Zubrin uses to reach a presumably secular audience. But I am not so sure.

    Space Is Empty

    Not long ago, I attended an informal meeting of space enthusiasts to brainstorm ways to make space flight possible. Throwing a human being and his miniature life-sustaining world beyond the planet's atmosphere is an expensive proposition whose societal benefits are not all that obvious. What most struck me about the gathering was that the most enthusiastic about space were simply casting about for a credible excuse for the rest of us to pay for their joy-ride. It's a "solution" in search of a problem.3

    Unanswered is the question: what in particular about space is supposed to make us happy?

    In a sense, space is a big (very big!) Rorschach test, a massive ink-blot that tells us more about ourselves than about anything else. Perhaps we look to space to avoid the here and now.

    One of the cornerstones of the modern psyche, as exemplified by Star Trek4 is that humanity will somehow find fulfillment in the vast "other" of the universe. If it is not Almighty Space will bring meaning to everything, then it is the personal "others" that inhabit it.

    But are we searching the outer universe to avoid gazing on the emptiness within?5

    "Deep calleth unto deep with the voice of thy water-spouts." It was God whom [the psalmist] addressed, who "remembered him from the land of Jordan and Hermon." It was in wonder and admiration he spake this: "Abyss calleth unto abyss with the voice of Thy water-spouts." What abyss is this that calls, and to what other abyss? Justly, because the "understanding" spoken of is an "abyss." For an "abyss" is a depth that cannot be reached or comprehended; and it is principally applied to a great body of water. For there is a "depth," a "profound," the bottom of which cannot be reached by sounding.... If by "abyss" we understand a great depth, is not man's heart, do you not suppose, "an abyss"? For what is there more profound than that "abyss"?

    Can the abyss of space fill the abyss of the human heart? But space is just "more of the same." Scientists would have us believe that no place in the universe is unique. How can we be satisfied with more of the stuff that already fails to satisfy?

    If space is not the Final Frontier, what is? Perhaps we need to re-examine the dimension most intimate to our existence: time.

    Modern life fosters the myth of human mastery over time. It is a scientific-technological illusion. Modern comforts surround us in a cocoon of self-satisfaction, untouched by the rigors of the world beyond our wills. “The world of our making becomes ever more mirror-like,” as Daniel Boorstin wrote. The apparent permanence of institutions, things, and even people in a stable society leads us to take for permanent what is evanescent. Recording and replaying devices give us the idea that we can bottle experience and relive it at will. The empirical method of science itself contributes to the illusion: the repeatability of experiments assumes the non-uniqueness of the present moment or at least that the experimenter possesses a space-like mastery over time. In truth a replayed experience can be at best only very similar to the original; no moment is ever truly the same as any other and humans will never master time as we have space. No matter how hard we try, we cannot go home again. Present realities inexorably drain into the past. The entirety of our life is an inexorable journey toward death. No matter how much of the world we conquer, we cannot avoid that final mystery that masters us all.

    As finite beings, we do not have arbitrary control over the span of our lives, but we can control how we spend the here-and-nows that, put together, make our lives.

    We need to consider the possibility that the otherness of space and the otherness of extraterrestrials won't ultimately fill our hearts, and that perhaps we need to look much closer to home: to the other person right in front of us, and the Infinite Other in whose image that person was created.

    In Sum

    So what should we do about NASA? Should we go to Mars? My answer is that NASA is worthwhile if we can re-inject it with purpose (the very thing that modern scientists, like Dawkins and Gould, would have us believe doesn't exist). The Mars mission is a worthy endeavor, a meaningful achievement. It could even help reinvigorate the West's faith in human reason and the mind's ability to grasp the world's meaning...


    ...but not if we insist on investing space with "ultimate" meaning.


    Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. (Ps 42:11)

    Some cool Apollo 11 links:


    1. See, for example, Thomas E. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Civilization.

    2. Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos

    3. The "weightlessness" of space, for example, is not unique. The experience of anyone free-falling is identical, as Einstein's general theory of relativity has made evident.

    4. Cf. Star Trek: First Contact (1996). (More on the Trek religion in future.)
    Trek Trivia: In the "Tomorrow is Yesterday" episode, the Enterprise crew intercepts a radio report that the first manned moon shot will take place on Wednesday. Apollo 11 was launched nearly two years after the filming on 16 July 1969, a Wednesday.

    5. "Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." (Lk 17:21) Cf. the final words of Joseph Conrad's Kurtz who can no longer avoid looking within: "There is nothing" (Heart of Darkness).

    Robert Zubrin, "Getting Space Exploration Right" The New Atlantis 8 (Spring 2005), 15-48.

    Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 257.

    John F. Kennedy, "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs" (Delivered in person before a joint session of Congress, May 25, 1961).

    John F. Kennedy, "Address at Rice University on the Nation's Space Effort" (Houston, Texas, September 12, 1962).

    Aurelius Augustinus, Expositions on the Psalms 42, n. 12.

    A Periodic Periodic Table

    I just ran across a Slate slide show desribing a new way of laying out the periodic table [alt] of the elements. It turns out that Phillip Stewart's "Chemical Galaxy: A New Vision of the Periodic Table of the Elements" has actually been around since November 2004.

    Check out the slide show:

    Start from the beginning, or
    cut to the chase

    (Here's an enlarged, legible image)

    Basically, it's the old table, but wrapped so that the ends meet, and the tops converge in the center. The new arrangement's circularity manifests the table's periodicity quite elegantly.

    The modern [standard] table artificially breaks up the sequence of elements at the end of each row. Certain elements fit into it uncomfortably; for example, hydrogen sits above lithium, with which it shares few properties. And entire groups are relegated to footnotes.... (slide 4)

    Stewart has preserved the sequential march from light to heavy elements and all Mendeleev's groupings. But here the rows don't end abruptly, and related elements that were previously separated, like neon and sodium, have been reunited. There's no need for footnotes, and there's a convenient spot for neutronium (sometimes called "element zero" because it has no protons at all), which never found an appropriate perch in the old table. (slide 5)

    The new circular arrangement also has the advantage of allowing the Lanthanides and Actinides (typically separated) to be visually integrated into continuity with the other elements.

    Aside from possible diffculty to chemical novices, the only problem I can see is that the lettering is too small compared to the size of the table, making it difficult to see across the classroom for all but the largest poster sizes. Then again, maybe they just want to sell larger posters....

    Also useful: Stewart's own Technical Notes

    Susan Kruglinski, "A New Periodic Table of the Elements" Discover 26:6 (June 2005), 88. [subscription required]

    Tuesday, July 19, 2005

    All the Newspeak That's Fit to Print

    Editorial Note: The present post is another political one. If you don't like politics, or my take on it, my next post will be more philosophical in nature.) People I respect, like Denyse O'Leary, don't seem to understand how politics and policy fit into the ostensible subject of this forum. Unfortunately I failed in my explanation of the blog's title to expand adequately on the meaning of "physics." I owe you an explanation. Please be patient.

    As we saw in "Why Real Physics?, the de-anchoring of purpose from nature not only destroys nature, but also subverts language, making it an instrument for devaluing human life. Following tonight's rhetoric1 in response to the President's announcement of his nomination of Judge Roberts, it is fitting to reflect on the abuse of language.

    Phrases like "a voice of reason and moderation" and "embodies the fundamental American values of freedom, equality and fairness" apply only to supporters of legal abortion. While any opponent of abortion "threatens to roll back the rights and freedoms of the American people." These examples are from the New York Times, which, as we saw with regard to Tom Woods, is unabashed in its role of liberal advocacy.

    Those with a less antipodean native tongue may find helpful this list of futher translations: Democrat Nomination Translation Table (Hat tip to Tim Carney)

    Garbage flows downhill. The Times' misuse of language was first perfected in the academy.2 Compare to the classic Frequently Used Words and Phrases of the PC Lexicon from Harvard's Penninsula.

    The co-opting of language for political power is precisely the kind George Orwell epitomizsed in 1984 as Newspeak:

    The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [the totalitarian Party], but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever....

    It would have been quite impossible to render [the Declaration of Independence] into Newspeak while keeping to the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink. A full translation could only be an ideological translation, whereby Jefferson’s words would be changed into a panegyric on absolute government.

    The moral of the story: the man who says language has no meaning and is only an instrument for power speaks meaningfully only about himself.

    Upholding a Grand Tradition

    The paradigmatic example New York Times newspeak was its cover-up of the famine from Stalin's forced agricultural collectivization of the Ukraine. Millions starved to death while correspondent Walter Duranty decried the reports as fallacious.
    In 1933, at the height of the famine, Duranty wrote that "village markets [were] flowing with eggs, fruit, poultry, vegetables, milk and butter. ... A child can see this is not famine but abundance." (Berlau)
    It was Duranty who knowingly denied the famine in dispatches to The New York Times with descriptive euphemisms such as "serious food shortage," "mismanagement of collective farming," a conspiracy of "wreckers" and "spoilers" who had "made a mess of Soviet food production" (i.e. poor Ukrainian peasants who resisted collectivization) and the like. "There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation," he wrote, "but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition." There was suffering, Duranty admitted but "to put it brutally - you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs..." (Kuropas)

    No longer are they sons and daughters, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters. They are raw materials indifferently to be used or crushed.

    (Further Duranty quotations collected here.)

    As Myron Kuropas describes, the Times continued its tradition with its justifications of the wholesale slaughter conducted by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge in 1975. But Pol Pot's two million is hardly an itchy nose compared to 70 million famine-stricken Ukrainians.

    The Times has yet to admit any fault. After all, how can one sin if one acts in the name of The Revolution?

    If the Times doesn't blush at covering up mass genocide, we can hardly expect it to suffer pangs of conscience over the 34 million children of the post-Roe generation (a third) who will never see the light of day.

    More recent Times shananigans here:

    Flunking Journalism Ethics 101: NYT Allows News Reporter to Write Op-Ed on Evolution Controversy


    1. Transcript of Leahy and Schumer remarks: [FoxNews] [WaPo?] [NYTimes?] Doubtless largely crafted long before the identity of the nominee was clear. Being a speech-writer for such single-note clients must be a boring job: perhaps an industrious programmer could train his computer to do the job at the push of a button. On the other hand, it might be fun to push the limit for the number of histrionic proclamations of imminent apocalyse can one string together in a paragraph without evoking unbridled laughter. More reaction quotations: [AP-NYT]

    2. Cf. Thucydides' description of tha Athenian plague as beginning in the head (History of the Peloponnesian War, 49).

    David Stout, "Democrats Warn Bush on Choosing Successor to O'Connor," New York Times (July 1, 2005). ["Warn"! O my!]

    George Orwell, 1984 (1949),Pt. III, ch. 6.

    John Berlau, "Duranty's Deception" Insight (July 7, 2003).

    Myron B. Kuropas, "Making omelets at The New York Times," The Ukrainian Weekly 71:10 (March 9, 2003).

    Arnold Beichman, "Pulitzer-Winning Lies," The Daily Stardard (June 12, 2003).

    Abortion as Self-destructive

    Dan Allot has written a thought-provoking piece online at American Spectator:

    Post-Abortion Depression

    Some significant sentences:

    Another study in the non-partisan American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse reported an increase in substance abuse experienced by post-abortive women. Women who had no history of substance abuse prior to their first pregnancy were, on average, twice as likely to abuse alcohol, more than twice as likely to abuse marijuana, and nearly three times as likely to use cocaine, as women who did not abort. In fact, there have been dozens of recent studies confirming the strong association between abortion and subsequent drug and alcohol abuse, which, in turn, are strongly correlated with depression.

    In another study that accounted for prior mental health problems, post-abortive women were found to be much more likely to attempt suicide. Gissler et al. discovered that while the mean annual suicide rate among Finnish women was 11.3 per 100,000, the rates associated with women who obtained an abortion (34.7) were significantly higher than in the population.

    Even apart from the morality of taking an innocent life, behind all the negative consequences to the mother lies the fundamental problem: abortion is a short-term solution to much deeper problems. Illegitimacy, for example, is only the outward manifestation of a psychic poverty that seeks sexual satisfaction apart from the fruitful union that is its purpose. "Saving" women (and their cowardly men) from the natural consequences of their choices only reinforces irresponsibility, but even more it denigrades their awesome vocation to bring new human life into the world. The empirical results only confirm what the ancient wisdom would have said: that to reject the purposes inscribed in one's being can bring only sadness, not fulfillment.

    Daniel Allott, "Post-Abortion Depression " The American Spectator (7/19/2005 12:08:11 AM).

    Monday, July 18, 2005

    Resurrecting 1950's Naivete

    National Public Radio has recently resurrected the 1950's Edward R. Murrow radio program “This I Believe.”

    The particular program I heard featured Elizabeth Deutsch, who as a 16-year-old had been on the show 50 years ago. Before turning to her "mature" take on life, NPR played her original spot. It crackled with the the naive optimism and stilted righteousness that ruled the airwaves before the traumas and the 1960's and the self-indulgence of the Baby Boomers dragged the culture deeper into materialism. It even sounded like it was in black and white.

    Ms. Deutsch's 2005 views were just what you'd expect to hear on NPR:

    Many of my early traits remain, including skepticism about religious authority, curiosity about the world and the lofty desire to live a righteous life. The world I see now worries me at least as much as it did in the 1950s.


    Being a kind person and striving for social justice remain high priorities for me, but not for religious reasons. The "simple faith in the Deity" expressed in my teenage essay has faded over the years. Still, after the events of 9/11, I returned to the Unitarian Church, the same denomination in which I was active when I was 16. I've come to appreciate once again that communal reflection about life's deeper matters is sustaining and uplifting and provides a consistent nudge in worthy directions.

    I thought it would be useful to bring to your attention Walker Percy's mordant observations of the original program:

    On the program hundreds of the highest-minded people, people in the country, thoughtful and intelligent people, people with mature inquiring minds, state their personal credos. The two or three hundred I have heard so far were without exception admirable people. I doubt if any other country or any other time in history has produced such thoughtful and high-minded people, especially the women. And especially the South. I do believe the South has produced more high-minded women, women of universal sentiments, than any other section of the country except possibly New England in the last century. Of my six living aunts, five are women of the loftiest theosophical pan-Brahman sentiments. The sixth is still a Presbyterian.

    If I had to name a single trait that all these people shared, it is their niceness. Their lives are triumphs of generous feelings. And as for themselves: it would be impossible for even a dour person not to like them.

    Tonight's subject is a playwright who transmits this very quality of niceness in his plays. He begins:

    I believe in people. I believe in tolerance and understanding between people. I believe in the uniqueness and the dignity of the individual—

    Everyone of “This I Believe” believes in the uniqueness and the dignity of the individual. I have noticed, however, that the believers are far from unique themselves, are in fact alike as peas in a pod.

    I believe in music. I believe in a child's smile. I believe in love. I also believe in hate.

    This is true, I have known a couple of these believers, humanists and lady psychologists who come to my aunt's house. On “This I Believe” they like everyone. But when it comes down to this or that particular person, I have noticed that they usually hate his guts.

    I suppose with the implosion of liberalism, the NPR crowd would prefer to forget the last 50 years ever happened.

    Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York: Ivy Books, 1961), 94-95 (ch. 11).