Friday, December 29, 2006

Salvo Magazine

I received a complimentary copy of the premier issue of Salvo (autumn 2006). The publication is associated with the Fellowship of St. James, the folks who publish Touchstone, and similarly hopes to defend Christianity from the attacks of secularism. The mission statement from the masthead reads:

Salvo is dedicated to debunking the cultural myths that have undercut human dignity, all but destroyed notions of virtue and morality, and slowly eroded our appetite for transcendence. It also seeks to recover the one worldview that actually works.
A worthy mission indeed! This first issue focusses on dethroning science. I found it somewhat disappointing, but with some interesting features to recommend it and obvious promise to become a much better publication.

The visual busy-ness of the magazine indicates it is intended to acquaint a younger audience to the landscape of the cultural battleground. (But then how many young people need to have the identity of the "Borg" explained to them, as on p. 50?) In any event, I'm pretty certain the publication is not directed at supercilious physicists with training in philosophy (i.e., me), so please keep this in mind while reading this critique.

My overall impression of the publication is that there are too many graphic designers involved, and too few (thoughtful) editors. The pages are littered with pretty photos and informational text boxes. There are big photos that take up most of a single page or that even span two pages. Without the photos, the issue's 96 pages would probably be more like 64. It's all very pretty and very professionally laid out. But I found myself frustrated with the constant barrage of new visual elements, which made me feel as if I were trying to watch an educational television program while a channel-surfing teenager controls the remote.

The issue gets off to a rather poor start with the cover headline: "The Ghost in the MACHINE: Science dismisses it—but at what price?" The problem with the statement is its implicit dualism: it gives the idea that instead of a body-soul composite, we really are two unrelated substances, body and soul, as philosophy after Rene Descartes would have us believe. Ironically, this dualism is precisely what has allowed modern science to cast religion as irrelevant in the first place. The magazine actually explains Cartesian dualism in a helpful textbox on p. 48. But I'm still left wondering about the point of the title. Why poison your audience at the outset and then hope that they manage to stumble across the antidote inside? The only thing I can figure is that, with the word machine in all caps under the image of a bunch of umbilicals and computer connections painfully piercing the back of a young man's head, the title is perhaps trying to evoke something like "Rage Against the Machine."

The contents of the issue include a number of informational items helpful for those not knowledgeable of the culture war. While "Seven Things You Can't Do as a Moral Relativist" (p. 30) is probably something you could have picked up from the smart conservative kid in your freshman dorm (but too few don't), "Decode: Homophobia" (61) is a useful examination of a carelessly coined term. The "Passwords" section at the beginning (8) of the issue is likely to help those less familiar with the terminology to get up to speed.

For me, the most valuable article was "Out on a Limb" by Whitney Archer, about people who suffer from "a strong desire for elective amputation of an otherwise healthy limb." The condition is called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) or apotemnophilia. Several years ago that U.S. News columnist John Leo mentioned the condition in a column about transexuals. Mr. Archer's article fails to make that connection, but recounts the stories of several sufferers and does make other worthy points, including:

The apotemnophiliac demands amputation on the grounds that he owns his body and so can do anything he wants with it. And such sentiments are prety much ubiquitous these days, used to justify everything from sexual preference to suicide. Indeed, one could argue that there exists a continuum of contemporary behaviors, all predicated upon ostensibly "inborn" desires that do no harm to others...

The magazine also tackles such issues as nanotechnology (p. 13), Darwinism (14), genomic mapping and eugenics (24), moral relativism (30), reductionism (34), cloning (36), transhumanism (46), Darwinism and education (54), euthanasia (56), cosmetic surgery and Brave New World (62), Intelligent Design and Darwinism (76), Intelligent Design and Darwinism (80), Darwinism (84), lefist dominance of academia (86), and the shoddy state of science reporting (93). Speaking of issues, did I mention Darwinism?

Hugh Ross's "How Intelligent Design [ID] Advocates Have Undermined Their Own Cause" was interesting. Dr. Ross disagrees with the purely negative approach of criticizing Darwinism and advocates coming up with a "credible creation/ID model" alternative. Others, including yours truly, argue that the most meritorious element of the ID movement is the critique of Darwinism. Positive ID proposals fall prey to the same fallacy that plagues Darwinism: that divine influence has to operate extrinsically, as if God sticks his finger into the world, instead of working within his creation. Dr. Ross acknowledges his approach can fall into a "god-of-the-gaps" fallacy (though he proposes a work-around, one that I find unsatisfying1). What most shakes the confidence of the hard-core atheistic Darwinist is the discovery of an actual mechanism of evolution. In a previous post, I explained Rick Sternberg's observation that atheistic Darwinists dogmatically oppose discovery of order in nature. I recounted in a another post Mark Ryland's observation that Darwinism is simply the biological consummation of the Cartesian-Newtonian view of the world, for which order can only be imposed from outside. ID theorists take up this mechanistic worldview uncritically. Despite their healthy intentions, the positive proposals of ID-proponents ally them with atheistic Darwinists in denying order within nature; by neglecting to examine their own presuppositions, they actually promote the dualism that scientism, including Darwinism, feeds on.

There are many more things I could write about, but you can take a look at the "Dispatches" (features?) on the Salvo homepage for yourself. (Other articles are available only in physical issue.)

The most manifestly problematic item in the issue was on page 16, "Trust Issues: No Offence, Science, but Can We Get a Second Opinion?", which contrasts scientific opinion "Then" with "Now". One item says that scientific opinion now says, "[D]on't drink fluids when you're sick." Hello? That's news to me! My mother is a nurse and has never deviated from enjoining me to drink fluids for colds. My skepticism found further support in the January 2007 issue of Consumer Reports, which advises treating cold-caused congestion to "[d]rink plenty of fluids, including chicken soup, which may help fight inflamation and the cold virus itself" (p. 47). The source is uncited, but maybe the Salvo author bases his statements on a single news item or study. Science doesn't turn on a dime. It takes more than a single study to change the medical consensus. Beside spreading medical misinformation, the tenor of the piece exacerbates what Hugh Ross elsewhere in the issue calls "the wearisome 'us versus them' hostilities" between theists and scientists (p. 82).

Indeed this sense of being an outsider's critique pervades the entire issue of Salvo. But I suppose that such a blemish is all but inevitable given that the criticism comes from a group that as far as I can tell includes very few scientists. William Dembski, who is on the editorial advisory board, is the only identifiable scientist besides Hugh Ross. To be truly effective, a real critique of science needs to come from an intimate knowledge of science, and yet maintain contact with a larger view of the world that predates its ascendance. Sadly, precious few people have access to either knowledge base, let alone to both.

The magazine seems to be aimed at informing a younger or less knowledgeable audience about the issues behind the culture wars, and this purpose is eminently valuable. Hopefully the publication will not only improve, but also play to the writers' strengths in future. The final page advertises the theme of the second issue as "Sexual Healing."


1. Dr. Ross writes:

We can use current gaps in understanding to test whether a "god-of-the-gaps" or a "naturalism-of-the-gaps" fallacy is in play. Here's the test: If, from a naturalistic perspective, a gap gets wider and wider as scientists learn more and more about a phenomenon, then a miraculous explanation for the gap becomes increasingly justified. If the gap gets narrower and narrower as the database increases, then a naturalistic explanation becomes increasingly justified
Certainly, Dr. Ross is correct about whether a miraculous or naturalistic explanation appears more justified. But why does the opposition have to be between miracle and naturalism? Why is God's action confined to the miraculous? The fact that there is order at all in nature testify to God's action; St. Paul certainly thinks so, as he writes in his letter to the Romans (1:20). Additionally, Ross has confined discovery of divine action to the provisional mode of discovery of modern science; a gap that is widening today may be narrowing tomorrow. Ross seems unaware that his proposal needlessly hands the advantage to the atheistic naturalists.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Silence and Light

We've passed the solstice and light has begun to reclaim our days. A recent Catholic News Agency story tells us that a universal indult for use of the traditional Latin Rite is imminent: mid- to late-January.

The winter issue of Latin Mass magazine featured Peter A. Kwasniewski's wonderful article on the goodness of the emptiness of the sanctuary in traditionally appointed churches, and the goodness of the silences throughout the Traditional Rite.

May darkness, silence, and emptiness reign in our hearts this Christmas so that our Lord may find room to stay with us.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


This morning I rose especially early and managed to make it to church several minutes before anyone else (the church is in a safe area, so it's left unlocked). It was wonderful to pray in the darkness with only the company of the vigil lamp and our Lord. Eventually others filtered in, but what really ruined the solitude was the old guy who switches on the lights. I'm sure he does it in all innocence. In our electrified world, no one remembers the value of darkness.

Having just posted on nothingness, it is appropriate to ponder darkness. Today, December 21st, is the winter solstice, the day that the sun stands still and turns back from its southward journey to begin its climb to the north. The day is shortest and the night longest. NPR had a great little segment this morning on our civilization's lamentable eradication of darkness:

Our brighter world also affects sleep patterns. Ekirch says the standard of eight continuous hours is a modern invention. Before artificial light, he says, Western Europeans slept in stages.

"The average person slept for three or four hours, awoke for an hour or more of quiet wakefulness and then returned for a second round of sleep, he says.

That wakeful period provided a time to think, or pray, or ponder dreams while they were still vivid, Ekirch says.

Artificial light also can affect hormones. For example, it can suppress the production of melatonin, which seems to affect both sleep and the immune system

Given this interstitial period of wakefulness, rising to pray the office of Vigils wouldn't have been violent to natural sleep patterns as it might seem at first glance.

In the usual traditional symbolism (exemplified in St. John's writings), light symbolizes goodness and darkness evil.1 But like any analogy, it has its limits. There are ways in which darkness is superior to light. Darkness allows us to push away the distractions and busy-ness of life and to focus on what's most important. In Charles Peguy's Portal of the Mystery of Hope, God praises his creation Night2:

Night is what is continuous. Night is the fabric
Of time, the reservoir of being.


O Night, o my daughter Night, the most religious of all my daughters.

The most reverent.

Of all my daughters, of all my creatures, the most abandoned into my hands.

You glorify me in Sleep even more than your Brother, Day, glorifies me in Work.

Because in work, man only glorifies me in his work.

Whereas in sleep it is I who glorify myself by man's surrender.


O beautiful night, night of the great mantle, my daughter of the starry mantle

You remind me, myself, you remind me of the great silence that existed

Before I had unlocked the firmament of ingratitude.

And you proclaim, even to me, you herald to me the silence that will exist

After the end of man's reign, when I will have reclaimed my scepter.

And sometimes I think about it ahead of time, because this man really makes a lot of noise.


1. There are of course exceptions in which darkness has a connection with God, as in Psalm 18. Not to mention the "still, small voice" that Elijah recognizes as the Lord's.

2. This section of the poem is so lovely that at some point I'll have to post a longer excerpt. Maybe next year.

Jon Hamilton, "Is a Brighter Earth a Better One?" NPR Morning Edition (December 21, 2006).

Charles Peguy, Portal of the Mystery of Hope trans. David Louis Schindler, Jr. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman's, 1996), 130, 132, 136. Another edition available here.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Zero vs. Nothing

Lately I've been reading about conceptions infinity, which is an important topic to natural philosophy and which Aristotle discusses in Book 3 of the Physics.

In any event, this is the reason I picked up David Foster Wallace's popular treatment of the mathematics of infinity (from Zeno up through Cantor). Wallace's writing is definitely mannered. He maintains a modern bias against Aristotle and in favor of the actuality of infinity, both of which points the book inadequately supports. (Sometime I'll have to do a full review.) Because of these flaws, the excellence of his explanation of the difference between zero and nothing is quite surprising:

It's a tricky difference [between the number 0 and the abstract word 'nothing'], but an important one. The Greeks' inability to see it was probably what kept them from being able to use 0 in their math, which cost them dearly. But 0 v. nothing is one of those abstract distinctions that's almost impossible to talk about directly; you more have to do it with examples. Imagine there's a certain math class, and in this class there's a fiendishly difficult 100-point midterm, and imagine that neither you nor I get even one point out of 100 on this exam. Except there's a difference: you are not in the class and didn't even take the exam, whereas I am and did. The fact that you received 0 points on the exam was thus irrelevant—your 0 means N/A, nothing—whereas my 0 is an actual zero. Or if you don't like that one, imagine that you and I are respectively female and male, both healthy 20-40 years of age, and we're both at the doctor's, and neither of us has had a menstrual period in the past ten weeks, in which case my total number of periods is nothing, whereas yours here is 0—and significant. End examples.

I suppose the difference can be summarized by noting that with zero, there is at least to start out with a possibility of having a something. Then of course the notion of possibility (vs. actuality) is critical to the whole notion of infinity....

David Foster Wallace, Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞ (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003), 142.

Also of interest: Nothing Comes from Nothing

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


End of semester crunch is on, so I won't be posting for perhaps another week. I apologize for the delay.


Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Small, Small World of the New York Times

This Thanksgiving I spent in Brooklyn with a friend's family. They are a wonderfully conservative family, but they subscribe to the New York Times. My friend's father remarked that letters to the Times give him the sense that their writers have no news source outside the Times. That may be a slight exaggeration, but at least it's plain that they speak to few people outside a closed circle of Northeastern-type liberals.

The same remark can be made about the editors of the Times. In an editorial of that day, ("Family Planning Farce"), the editors lambaste President Bush's pick of Eric Keroack to head family planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services. They call him a doctor "nationally known for his wacky theory about reproductive health."

What are Dr. Keroack's "wacky" theories? One is the link between abortion and breast cancer (ABC). The Times is obviously blind to the overwhelming evidence supporting this connection. The study that supposedly definitively disproved the connection, actually proved it (or at least provided further evidence in support of it). Unfortunately the editors of the medical journal were afraid of political reprisals and wrote the summary article to give the idea that the study reached the opposite conclusion. Being good journalists, the Times (among so many other news sources) failed to probe deeper and took the summary at face value. And why would they probe deeper, when they got the answer they were looking for?

Other tenets of Dr. Keroack to which the Times objected:

[A Woman's Concern, the group Dr. Keroack led] has stated on its Web site that the distribution of contraceptive drugs or devices is “demeaning to women, degrading of human sexuality and adverse to human health and happiness.”


When speaking at abstinence conferences across the country, and in his writings, Dr. Keroack has promoted the novel argument that sex with multiple partners alters brain chemistry in a way that makes it harder for women to form bonding relationships. One of the researchers cited by Dr. Keroack [Dr. Rebecca Anne Turner1] has called the claim “complete pseudoscience” unsupported by her findings.

That contraceptives are degrading to women (insofar it severs a woman's connection to the ineffable mystery of bringing forth new human life, and opens her to being seen as only a pleasure machine to satisfy men) I'll leave to another time; the argument involves the purposes of human life and requires a discussion of the meaning of "degrading," both of which are beyond my current purpose.

But the second point, that having multiple sexual partners degrades a woman's ability to form permanent bonding relationships, is low-hanging fruit. Whether or not Dr. Turner's 1999 research supports Dr. Keroack's claim, it's hyperbolic to call the claim "complete pseudoscience." The debate centers on the role of the hormone oxytocin, which is called a "bonding hormone" because it stimulates in a woman a sense of togetherness with the person doing the stimulation (viz., a breast-feeding child or a sexual partner). Take for example this paragraph from the site (a far-from-morally-conservative site)2:

Premenopausal women sometimes become attached to a man with whom they have had sex, even if the man isn't good for them, because the sexually induced secretion of oxytocin encourages this binding. After menopause, intercourse does not result in an oxytocin surge, thus permitting women to make a more rationale [sic], and less instinctive, choice.


Women often assume that men desire sex just for the physical pleasure it provides. No doubt, that's sometimes all the man is after. However, I think that many men realize that intercourse can make the woman feel attached to the man. Longing for love, men may desire sex as a means of fostering a romantic bond.

Furthermore it is scientifically plausible that forming such bonds makes it more difficult to form future bonds. Let's ignore the obvious inference that being bonded to one person necessarily decreases the bond to another person, rather like a used piece of scotch tape has less stickiness. Restricting ourselves to "scientific" research, it is not pseudo-science to assert that exposure to oxytocin desensitizes cells to oxytocin (hormonal desensitization over time is not uncommon, as for example desensitization to dopamine from dopamine-stimulating drugs). Just a casual search of the web turns up a 2003 abstract in a peer-reviewed research journal containing this: "RESULTS: Pretreatment with oxytocin resulted in a decrease in the percentage of cells that responded to subsequent oxytocin exposure." The article is titled "Oxytocin-induced desensitization of the oxytocin receptor."

"Complete" implies that the claims are not only absolutely unsupported by any scientific research, but actually run counter to a large preponderance of such research. A less politically motivated response would have modestly said that Dr. Keroack's claims were unsupported by the cited research. Dr. Turner's "rebuttal" is empty rhetoric. If anything is pseudoscience in this whole incident, it is Dr. Turner's use of the phrase "complete pseudoscience."

Of course, people like the Times editors are so satisfied with easy answers that they simply repeat Dr. Turner's claim without scrutiny. As their lives, a claim that satisfies their preconceived notions remains unexamined.3

For me, the satisfying thing about reading such an intellectually insular publication like the Times is knowing that a group of people so misguided about something as basic as human bonding and procreation live not only in a small world, but perforce in a shrinking world.


1. I will refrain from dwelling on Dr. Turner's unfortunate initials.

2. Here are a few sites that discuss oxytocin:

3. Here are a few sites that lip-synch the Times's pablum as an opportunity to vent further self-righteous outrage at the Bush administration:

Christopher Robinson, Ralph Schumann, Peisheng Zhang, Roger C. Young, "Oxytocin-induced desensitization of the oxytocin receptor," American journal of obstetrics and gynecology 2003, vol. 188, no2, pp. 497-502.

Alan Wirzbicki and Bryan Bender, "Critics protest health post pick" Boston Globe, November 18, 2006.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Don't Take Our Freedom for Granted

I'm headed out of town tomorrow for the holiday, so I won't get a chance to post anything substantial this week. But in the meantime, I thought I'd recommend a film that you need to see for the sake of the survival of our civilization.

A friend recently lent me Islam: What the West Needs to Know on DVD. It's a very professionally put together film; the information is startling and not what our cultural elite want you to hear (the same dominant culture that never managed to admit that communism was a problem).

It's politically incorrect to say (the truth often is), but the claim that Islam is a religion of peace is (very lamentably) false.

A basic principle of Islamic exegesis is that when there is a conflict between different passages in the Koran, the ones WRITTEN LATER (not necessarily situated later in the Koran) take precedence. The peaceful passages of the Koran so often quoted were written when Mohammed was just starting out in Mecca and had little power. The violent passages were written once he had ascended to power as warlord of Medina. (What's particularly frightening is that the last written book is the most violent. And I haven't mentioned the violence exemplified in the haditha, the recorded acts of Mohammed, which are taken as normative for Muslims.) In other words, violence in an essential part of Islam (those who deny it are ignorant, or lying—and the film describes how Mulsims see lying and deceit for Islam as justified).

Muslims are happy to dialogue as long as they are out of power. But when they are in control, there is no dialogue: all other religions have second-class status at best; there are no integral human rights. Those who convert from Islam are to be killed. There is no freedom to preach any religion but Islam, or to advocate any societal system but that mandated by the Koran.

I highly recommend Islam: What the West Needs to Know; it's essential for understanding the depth of peril the West faces from Islamic ideology.

So this Thanksgiving, give thanks and don't take your freedom for granted.

Also read what Hillaire Belloc wrote about Islam: "The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed."

Friday, November 17, 2006

More from Maritain Conference

Two weeks ago (Nov. 2-5) I attended the American Maritain Association conference in Nashville. The topic was "Nature, Science, and Wisdom: the Role of the Philosophy of Nature." I posted a little on it last week, and I would like to tell you more now. There were many great talks and because many were concurrent, I was unable to make it to all of those that interested me. Below are some sparse and unfortunately inadequate notes on those I attended.

Fr. Leo Elders spoke on St. Thomas Aquinas's commentary on Aristotle's Physics. There are diverse ways of grouping the 8 books of the Physics. The first five books are on nature and the last three are on motion. But Porphyry and Philoponus classed book 5 with books 6-8. Aquinas classed books 3 and 4 as being on movement, 5 and 6 on parts of movement, and 7 on movement in relation to movers. Fr. Elders contends that when St Thomas write in his commentary of what he regards as secure doctrine (teaching) in the Physics, he calls Aristotle "the Philosopher." Thus book 8 is not established doctrine. In his commentary on De Caelo (On the Heavens), St. Thomas says that Aristotle's cosmology is not necessarily true: that other cosmologies are possible.

Mark Ryland's plenary talk emphasized the ways in which both Darwinism and its primary critic Intelligent Design (ID) have in common a very modern view of Nature; he criticized the modern view and suggested that Aristotle's view must be brought back into the modern debate to provide a more radical critique of the philosophical problems that have grown up around modern science. He was at pains to emphasize, however, that ID does broadly agree with Aristotle in rejecting materialist reductionism and arguing for an intelligent cause; this gulf separating ID and Aristotle from such reductionism dwarf the differences between the two.

The big assumption that ID and Darwinism have in common is that "design" can only come from outside of nature—that the regular workings of nature cannot themselves manifest an intelligent designer, but God's workings somehow can only be over and above those of nature. This commonality of outlook predates Darwin even in those advocating design: William Paley's example concluding design from a watch found in the woods was overtly mechanistic. The ordering within a watch does not come from within, as it would in a natural thing like a tree, but from without. The parts of a watch have no intrinsic relationship to each other: the order is imparted from outside. Darwinism is the completion of the Newtonian revolution because Darwin brought naturalism to biology in the way that Newton and his followers had brought it to the inanimante world and the cosmos.

The modern Intelligent Design movement manifests the same problem. In William Dembski's trichotomy of explanations into "necessity, chance, and design." Necessity is another name for things that happen by a regularity that can be encapsulated as a law. But why can't regularities in nature demonstrate "design" in some sense? Surely the fact that pine seeds grow up in the vast majority of cases to be pine trees and not "man-faced ox progeny" or some other monster is evidence of order in the world, and thus of an orderer. As Peter Pagan said in his talk, "Admitting natural selection without a selector is like admitting action without an agent" (paraphrase).

Bryan Cross's paper, "A Philosophical Critique of Dembski’s Mathematical Argument to Design," amplified on the shortcomings of ID by dismantling a critical part of Dembski's design argument.

In his book No Free Lunch, William Dembski argues that certain recently proven mathematical theorems show that evolutionary algorithms are in themselves unable to generate specified complex information [necessary for development of new forms].... thus that intelligence can be the only source of such information. [p. 1]


I have considered various ways of modifying Dembski's Natural Cause argument so as to make it valid, and I think I have shown that none of these ways is successful.... This does not mean that we cannot by way of natural reason determine that nature was intelligently designed. On the contrary, the intelligent design of nature is readily apparent, even in (and perhaps especially in) its mathematical elegance as revealed more fully by modern physics. But I have shown that the generative limitations of mathematical algorithms do not demonstrate that the complex specified information we happen to find in nature must have been inserted into the cosmos by an intelligent designer. [pp. 14-15]

A big part of Dembski's problem, according to Cross, is that he assumes that the causal powers of material things are completely described by the mathematical representions of their characterizations. This unexamined assumption is one of the great philosophical mistakes of our age, and so deserves examination here. Cross writes lucidly on the inadequacy of mathematics to comprehend reality:

Mathematical modeling is more successful when we are treating very simple entities, or artifacts whose extrinsic nature is simple. Mathematical modeling also works best over a short period of time. The longer we run out the model, typically the less likely the result matches the state of the actual thing being modeled. We 'successfully' model complex entities only by at least to some significant degree stripping away (abstractively) their depth of being, their particularities or unique accidents, and their environmental interactions. Perhaps 'wildly' successful is a bit of an overstatement.

What is more ontologically revealing, is not how well simple entities can be mathematically modeled, but how even the simplest of living organisms cannot as such be mathematically modeled. The greater the difficulty in mathematically capturing entities as we move up the chain of being indicates that we never fully capture them as we move down the chain of being. Even the simplest of material beings is still a material being, neither a pure form nor an ens rationis [being of reason]. This implies that no material being can be perfectly mathematically modeled. Therefore, we cannot justifiably assume that the per se limitations of purely mathematical algorithms with respect to generating information are precisely the information generating limitations of any material being. [pp. 13-14]

Marie George gave a fascinating and entertaining account of the many problems of animal language studies in her talk "Nature, Human Beings, and Animals." These studies claim that apes (and sometimes dolphins) can communicate on par with humans (which they do by pushing buttons on a special keyboard) and thus have intellects. Among the problems she observed with the studies:

  1. Failure to distinguish actions based necessarily on intellect from those based on internal senses (animals are conscious, but not self-conscious),
  2. Failure to acknowledge that animals can learn and their characteristic actions need not be based exclusively on instinct,
  3. Failure of researchers to provide transcripts or data sets (to show how representative remarkable events documented in papers are of their behavior).
  4. Failure to account for influence of the researcher (e.g., emotional reactions to apes "speaking")

Dr. George described how unredacted accounts of interactions with these apes show how unconversational they are. Their words are statements are mostly single words, such as "banana," or "tickle [me]." She read a published journalistic account in which the ape mostly tried to insert a stick in the journalist's ear. Apes don't use language to augment their own knowledge of the world, or that of others—in other words they don't converse.

Dr. George quoted Noam Chomsky as saying, "It’s about as likely that an ape will prove to have a language ability as that there is an island somewhere with a species of flightless birds waiting for human being to teach them to fly." In other words, if apes were capable by nature of communicating in a human way, they wouldn't need us humans to unlock that capability. Contrast the painstaking efforts required to get an ape to "talk" with the almost automatic aquisition of language by a human infant (to the point that it would take incredible efforts to prevent a human infant from talking).

November 29: corrected summary of Mark Ryland's talk; other minor corrections.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Real Darwinist Agenda

I got back Sunday from the American Maritain Association conference in Nashville. I had a great time. I'll write more about the conference later, but for now I just wanted to tell you about some of the interesting ideas about the actual doctrine of Darwinists.

Before I get to that, I should mention that there were a variety of (philosophical) perspectives on Darwinism at the conference. Mark Ryland's plenary talk explored the similarities between Darwinism and Intelligent Design (ID: capital I, capital D), beginning with Paley. In the final session, the speakers were Fr. Edward Oakes, Michael Behe, and Peter Pagan. Fr. Oakes spoke on the compatibility of (an understanding of) Darwinism with traditional theism. Dr. Pagan was critical of Darwinism and Intelligent Design Theory. Only Dr. Behe spoke against Darwinism and in favor of ID.

A central argument of Dr. Behe's talk dovetailed with the argument of an earlier talk by Richard von Sternberg on "Is Darwinism Anti-Logos by Chance or Design?". It is this talk that I want to turn to first.

Dr. Sternberg's talk posed the question, "[I]s Darwinism neutral with respect to logoi and the Logos [i.e., divine order in nature, and the Divine Archetype]? To answer these questions it is necessary to examine Darwinian responses to empirical challenges." Darwinists like Ernst Mayr have conducted repeated purges of scientists who would observe any sort of order in nature. This behavior shows they are against finding any sort of order in nature: they believe only in complete randomness.

Unfortunately for these ideological Darwinists, science is self-correcting in the long-run: the truth cannot help coming out eventually. (And besides, you really can't do science without believing in some sort of order in nature.) Hence, evolutionary theory is currently in a phase of "Damage Control", as Dr. Sternberg labelled the era since 1976 to the present, in which neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins scramble to claim the order bursting from scientific research as feathers in their own cap.

Other interesting details from Dr. Sternberg's talk:

  1. Population genetics models assume infinite population size. But metazoans (multi-cellular animals) lack an "effective population size" for natural selection to operate. The models that support Darwinism don't apply to reality.
  2. Almost all the race biologists in Nazi Germany were Darwinists.
  3. Marx wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin, who warmly declined for P.R. purposes.

Dr. Sternberg concluded that Darwinism is purposely anti-logos.

Michael Behe's talk in the last session supported Dr. Sternberg's claims about the Darwinists' true agenda. Dr. Behe said that in evaluating the meaning of Darwinism, one should not look at the "tamest" possible version of the theory (Fr. Oakes's project), but at what the Darwinists actually say about the theory.

In 1995 the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) defined evolution to exclude any compatibility with belief in a Creator:

The diversity of life on Earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments. (h/t: Metanexus)

Under public pressure, the statement was later revised to omit the words "unsupervised, impersonal," but (as expressed elsewhere) with the understanding that "natural" includes these concepts. (Current statement)

In September 2005, 39 Nobel laureates (many them biologists) wrote a letter (PDF) to the Kansas School Board:

Logically derived from confirmable evidence, evolution is understood to be the result of an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection.

The words "unguided, unplanned" are exactly those used by Cardinal Schonborn in his NYT op-ed. It is very clear that Darwinism as represented by Darwinists is against any sort of design in nature ("intelligent design" in all lowercase).

Citations in Sternberg's Slides

Abigail Lustig, "Biologists on Crusade," Darwinian Heresies (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

A. Desmond, Archetypes to Ancestors (University of Chicago Press, 1986).

A. Desmond, The Politics of Evolution (University of Chicago Press, 1992).

N.A. Rupke, Richard Owen (Clarendon Press, 1995).

P.J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).

G.S. Levit and K. Meister, "The History of Essentialism vs. Ernst Mayr's 'Essentialism Story': A case study in German Idealistic Morphology," Theory in Biosciences 124:281-307.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Rainy morning

The day's overcast and drizzly. I feel down on days like this. It'd be nice if it were sunny out, but it has to rain at some point. Rain has the virtue of washing away the dust and grease that accumulates in the sun's reign.

A number of people I know are upset by today's election results. Sure it's sad to have the Dems in control of at least one house of Congress. But the Republicans hadn't comported themselves very well when they were in control: as Lord Acton said, "power corrupts"--it corrupts even those whose ideological committments should dictate they eschew power and government expansion. Let's hope President Bush will take this opportunity to reconnect with the "reality-based" community, and admit that leadership is as much about a proper sensitivity as it is resolution in the face of opposition.

The challenge for the Democrats now is to govern without falling prey to their vices of elitism and strident, liberal silliness. If they can avoid annoying people for another two years, they might be able to hold onto power. I'd be (pleasantly) surprised were that to happen. We need a viable two-party system, and for the longest time the Dems haven't been holding up their end. It's competition that keeps politics healthy.

The rain won't last forever.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Degrees of Abstraction

I doubt I'll be able to post anythign substantial next week, as I'll be in Nashville at the American Maritain Association convention on "Nature, Science and Widsom." In preparation, I've been reading Jacques Maritain. His Science and Wisdom is a wonderfully brief and lucid explanation of many things I've been trying to convey here. I highly recommend it. His Degrees of Knowledge is longer but includes more complete explanations.

Below is a very helpful selection from Degrees of Knowledge on the three degrees of abstraction. The diagram is my contribution. The a axis parametrizes displines by whether their objects can exist without matter, while the b axis parametrizes disciplines by whether their objects can be conceived without matter. (Maritain's diagram from Degrees of Knowledge is here [new window]; it is more detailed, but for that somewhat less clear on the main point of this post.)

The mind can consider objects abstracted from, and purified of, matter but only to the extent that matter is the basis of diversity amongst individuals within a species.... In this way, the object remains; and remains to the very extent that it has been presented to the intellect, impregnated with all the notes coming from matter, and abstracts only from the contingent and strictly individual peculiarities, which science overlooks. The mind thus considers bodies in their mobile and sensible reality, bodies garbed in their empirically ascertainable qualities and properties. Such an object can neither exist without matter and the qualities bound up with it, nor can it be conceived without matter. It is this great realm that the ancients called Physica, knowledge of sensible nature [i.e., natural philosophy and modern science], the first degree of abstraction.

Secondly, the mind can consider objects abstracted from, and purified of, matter insofar as matter is the general basis for the active and passive sensible properties of bodies. In this case, it considers nothing more than a certain property which it isolates within bodies—a property that remains when everything sensible is left aside—quantity, number or the extended taken in itself. This is an object of thought which cannot exist without sensible matter, but which can be conceived without it. For, nothing sensible or experimental enters into the definition of the ellipse or of the square root. This is the great field of Mathematica, knowledge of Quantity as such according to the relations of order and measure proper to it—the second degree of abstraction.

Finally, the mind can consider objects abstracted from, and purified of, all matter. In this case it considers in things only the very being with which they are saturated, being as such and its laws. These objects of thought which not only can be conceived without matter, but which can even exist without it, whether they never exist in matter, as in the case of God and pure spirits, or whether they exist in material as well as in immaterial things, for example, substance, quality, act and potency, beauty, goodness, etc. This is the wide domain of Metaphysica, knowledge of that which is beyond sensible nature, or of being as being—the third degree of abstraction.

Maritain further explains in Science and Wisdom how the degrees of abstraction are inhomogeneous in degree:

The way in which things are organised in the thought of Aristotle is well known. The theory of the three degrees or the three orders of abstraction became classic in the schools.

In the first degree of this process, the mind knows an object which it disengages from the singular and contingent moment of sense perception, but whose very intelligibility implies a reference to the sensible. This first and lowest degree of scientific abstraction is precisely the degree of physics and of the philosophy of nature. It defines the field of sensible reality. Above it comes the degree of mathematical abstraction, in which the mind knows an object whose intelligibility no longer implies an intrinsic reference to the sensible, but to the imaginable. This is the domain of the mathematical praeter-real. And finally, in the highest degree of intelletual vision, the metaphysical degree, the intelligibility of the object is free from any intrinsic reference to the senses or to imagination. This is the field of the trans-sensible reality.

Thus Aristotle did not only lay the foundations of physics. At the same time he threw light on the difference which distinguishes physics from metaphysics—a matter of capital importance. The division of the three orders of abstraction is an analogical division. The three orders are not part of the same genus: they constitute fundamentally different genera. They are not set at stages one above the other in the same generical line: there is a true noetic heterogeneity between them.

Jacques Maritain, "The Philosophy of Nature," Science and Wisdom, trans. Bernard Wall (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954), 37-39.

Jacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge, trans. Gerald B. Phelan (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959), 35-36 (diagram, 39).

Friday, October 20, 2006

Equality's Discontents

I'm still working on a lengthier, substantial post, but in the meantime, I just re-read a great story by Kurt Vonnegut and thought you might enjoy it as well:

Harrison Bergeron.

Ignore the gratuitous initial editorialization by the person who so kindly posted the story. There has always been a tension between those two virtues of the French Revolution, liberty and equality. Hopefully our current leaning toward the latter won't eventuate in the dystopic future Vonnegut imagines.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Virtue of Vanity

Now you might be inclined to think that an essay claiming to upholding vanity as a positive good is akin to Erasmus' "In Praise of Folly," but you would be mistaken. I mean seriously to point out the oft-neglected good side to what is often called vanity.

(This essay takes its inspiration in part from Alan Ehrenhalt's essay "Hypocrisy Has Its Virtues" from the waning days of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal; the piece explained how hypocrisy really is the tribute vice pays to virtue.1)

We Americans pride ourselves on being practical, results-oriented people. We don't go in for the foppery that preoccupies other cultures (what Tocqueville called "forms"). We don't care as much for how a thing looks as for what it does. Ceremony should be minimized Furnishings and clothing should be functional, not fancy.

There is of course a great amount of goodness in this view, which is one thing that makes this a great country. However, there are two sides to everything. o as usual, I'm assuming the devil's advocate role, first of all to point out that any behavior taken to an extreme is no longer a virtue, but a vice. As Aristotle observed, true virtue is the medium between two extremes, and it must be admitted that we Americans, as with any other people in this fallen world, sometimes take our virtues beyond their proper limits.

The truth is that often what we call vanity is just being thoughtful of others. This realization first dawned on me when I noticed the dress of one of my fellow grad students, whom I'll call "Joe." He always wore "comfortable" clothes: birkenstocks, shorts and a t-shirt. I probably dressed only marginally better myself at the time, but whereas I didn't have to look at myself much, I did have to look at him: his hairy legs, long hair, and poorly shaven face were an eyesore. On reflection, I realized that "dressing up" was really a form of consideration for the people around us.

Women are often accused of being vain and the charge is not always just, but a reflection of their being much more "relational" creatures who take joy in pleasing others. As a current colleague of mine says, whereas men define themselves by what they do, women define themselves by their relationships. Of course, pleasing others can become self-serving—the vicious side of the virtue. Women just as easily as men use others, and usually by manipulation.2 Our "vanity" or consciousness of the importance of others' perceptions is the glue that holds society together and keeps us from fragmenting into cultural solipsists.

Last time I saw Joe, he had become engaged and his mode of self-presentation had shaped up substantially. He'd clipped his hair, and wore much more respectable clothing. His fiancee had obviously inspired him with some of her feminine "vanity." And the world is a better place for it.


1. The only quality immoral moderns like Bill Clinton regard as a virtue is consistency. "At least I'm not a hypocrite," they say in an effort to excuse themselves. But really they indict themselves of being "little minds"—ala Ralph Waldo Emerson.

2. Karol Wojtyla writes very well about the reciprocal unfortunate way each sex often uses the other in Love and Responsibility.

Alan Ehrenhalt, "Hypocrisy Has Its Virtues," The New York Times[!], February 6, 2001.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Future of Physics

Last time I visited New York was this summer and I had the pleasure of lunch with my old advisor. He thinks that string theory is a dead end, and I have to agree with him. Physics is entering a new era. My advisor would cringe at the company his opinion keeps, but Robert Laughlin A Different Universe (which I discussed here) agrees. Laughlin sees the the future of physics in emergence (as opposed to the reductionism of which string theory is a grand culmination).

A couple of items have surfaced that similarly question the future path of physics. First, John Horgan, in his review of Lee Smolin's book The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, writes about how the great promise string theory showed in 1990's has been achieved only frustration:

Physics at the end of its string?

Smolin pleads with his colleagues to explore alternative theories of everything, including twistor space theory, an invention of British physicist Roger Penrose; doubly special relativity, proposed by Portuguese theorist Joäo Magueijo; and loop quantum gravity theory, to which Smolin has contributed. Acknowledging that "no idea yet has that absolute ring of truth," Smolin also calls for "a radical rethinking of our basic ideas about space, time and the quantum world."

Horgan disagrees with Smolin and thinks that money, not a new mindset, is the key to the future of physics:

Although I admire the authority and passion of Smolin's diagnosis, I disagree with his prescription. What physics desperately needs is not new ideas but hard experimental data that can test ideas or inspire new ones. But these data are costly. [etc. etc.]

Secondly, Burton Richter, former director of SLAC, writes the "Reference Frame" piece in the current Physics Today:

Theory in particle physics: Theological speculation versus practical knowledge.

Richter bemoans string theory as more akin to theology than science (and he uses theology in the most pejorative sense). He especially laments Leonard Susskind's "Cosmic Landscape" of unlimited universes that sample the parameter space of all cosmic constants (review forthcoming). Richter, like Horgan, sees experiment as the ultimate way to salvation.

My prognosis for today's physics is even more dire: we are due for a larger shift than Smolin hopes for, an even more radical break than Laughlin heralds: reductionism has played itself out, but it's not emergence per se that will rule. Instead physics will have to go back to its conceptual roots to a rediscover nature as an organizing principle, of matter as possessing inherent purposes. As I've written before, teleology compliments other modes of explanation.

The shift in mindset with be tectonic. The reigning paradigm has made progress by ignoring purpose in nature, thereby blinding itself to the major component of the natural order that it seeks to describe. The program has been a great success: we've certainly managed to circumscribe the physical world of ordinary experience... and much beyond ordinary experience. But the overwhelming mathematicization of this description keeps it from being hinged on the ordinary human experience that forms the basis of human meaning.

The new physics will open man's second eye and discover a whole new dimension to the world. Experiment will necessarily play a role, but the new mindset will lead in new, more quotidian directions (directions that will be much less costly than multi-billion-dollar particle accelerators). We might actually have to open our eyes to the world around us.

The revolution will not happen overnight. The programs of renewal for which Horgan, Smolin, and Richter hope may first come and go. It may be decades before the new physics can stand on its own.

But it is coming.

John Horgan, "Physics at the end of its string?," The Globe and Mail, (October 4, 2006), A2.

Burton Richter, "Theory in particle physics: Theological speculation versus practical knowledge," Physics Today (October 2006), 8.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Nature, Science and Wisdom

This year's American Maritain Association conference is on the subject of

"Nature, Science and Wisdom:
The Role of the Philosophy of Nature"

It will be held Thursday, November 2- Sunday, November 5 in Nashville.

The line-up of speakers reads like a "who's who" of realists in the philosophy of science and philosophy of nature, and includes William Wallace, Stanley Jaki, Anthony Rizzi, Chris Morrissey, Mark Ryland, Ralph McInerny, Jude Dougherty, and Jean DeGroot. (I've omitted many others of merit, I am sure, simply out of my own ignorance.)

Definitely worth taking time out to attend. I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Papal Controversy: Faith and Reason

I wrote most of this last week, but didn't get a chance to post it.

With all the controversy, how many people do you think have actually read the offending text? So that you can be one, here it is:

Pope's controversial German speech on reason and religion

The irony has undoubtedly been observed before that some Muslims would protest a statement that Islam is evil by murdering innocents. Almost as if they're trying to prove the charge true.

This weekend I viewed Islam: Empire of Faith, a feature very positive on Islam produced by PBS. According to this documentary, Islam calls for a totalizing unity of life, which would seem to be consistent with the claim I've previously heard that Islam leaves no room for reason—that faith subsumes reason. Certainly Islam has had much more reasonable periods in its history, but was this a true manifestation of Islam? It is clear the Muslim commentators on Aristotle seem to have been good philosophers to the extent that they ignored their faith; perhaps the same is true of their peaceful relations with non-Muslims. I'd really appreciate seeing a full discussion of the issues.

The main thrust of the Pope's talk is not the (alleged) fideism of Islam, but the manifest division of faith and reason in modern Western culture and how this opens the way for violence as arbiter. The Pope traces this division to the gradual dehellenization of Christian thought.

He recounts how the Christian Faith was born from an encounter of Judaism with Greek thought (for example, the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures), which allowed formulation of belief in Christ as Logos, Divine Reason. By severing itself from the Hellenic spring of its existence, Christianity has become not only untrue to itself, but has retreated to the subjective world and abandoned the objective world of reason to the amorality and ultimate meaninglessness of modern empiricism.

This gives rise to two principles which are crucial for the issue we have raised. First, only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity.

A second point, which is important for our reflections, is that by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.

I will return to this problem later. In the meantime, it must be observed that from this standpoint any attempt to maintain theology's claim to be "scientific" would end up reducing Christianity to a mere fragment of its former self.

But we must say more: if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science", so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical.

In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.

Faith needs a vital connection to reason. Without it, man loses direction in his life, and the assertion of individual power becomes the sole rule of conduct.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Purpose and Order in Nature

According to conventional wisdom, the dawn of modern science dispelled the gloom of moth-bitten superstition, and banished purposes from nature. But such Enlightenment propaganda leaves out the tradition the modern world inherited from its predecessors. At the heart of the modern scientific conception of the world is the idea that nature is a knowable order. Without this belief, Galileo would never have troubled himself to roll balls down inclined planes. Exploring chemical reactions would be pointless. Geneticists would have no reason to take pains sequencing nucleic acid base pairs. What modern scientists take for granted was established by reason in the ancient world—by philosophy. In Book II of the Physics, Aristotle argues that nature’s obvious regularities—its tendency to act in a given way under given circumstances—reveal an ordering to specific ends:

For teeth and all other natural things either invariably or normally come about in a given way; but of not one of the results of chance or spontaneity is this true. We do not ascribe to chance or mere coincidence the frequency of rain in winter, but frequent rain in summer we do; nor heat in the dog-days, but only if we have it in winter. If then, it is agreed that things are either the result of coincidence or for an end, and these cannot be the result of coincidence or spontaneity, it follows that they must be for an end; and that such things are all due to nature even the champions of the theory which is before us would agree. Therefore action for an end is present in things which come to be and are by nature.1

In other words, although “chance” events often obtain, the natural world is inherently teleological. Scientific laws, modern and ancient, physical, chemical, and biological, disclose nature’s regularities and testify to teleology. That baking soda and vinegar react expansively, and that confetti is almost always attracted to the static electric charge on a balloon show the order and purpose of nature. Far from being opposed to modern science, teleology is its sine qua non.

The ascendance of the Darwinian narrative leaves the situation unchanged. Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection encompasses two pieces, chance variation and natural selection: (1) genetic novelty originates in chance, and (2) novel forms less suited to existence tend to fail in passing their genes to posterity. While the latter point may well be a valuable contribution to the scientific understanding of the world, the former point simply puts a name (and a deceptive one) on an unknown. As Aristotle’s classic definition observes, chance is the intersection of two otherwise unrelated lines of causality. Chance itself is not a cause; to invoke chance is not to explain, but to label an unknown. To the extent that any theory relies on chance, that theory is not science, but rather ignorance.2

The champions of chance argue that teleology is an intellectual opiate and kills the quest for the acatual mechanism of change. On the contrary, teleology does not eliminate the need for an efficient causal explanation: just because one appreciates the sublime order of the parts of a horse does not negate the molecular forces that maintain its form. Teleology compliments other modes of explanation.

The source of the many prejudices people hold against teleology is that an order in nature apparently points to

  1. an Orderer, and
  2. a natural moral law (order).

And these are both true. The source of people's fear is the misconception that God somehow imposes the moral order on the world from the outside. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whom would you most trust to write the instruction manual for your lawnmower? Obviously the person who designed and built it. My take is that in the same fashion, revealed moral laws (i.e., the Ten Commandments) are simply God giving us certainty about how to find happiness through the regularities we observe in nature on our own.

The natural moral law is inscribed within creation—it is an integral part of its workings. The "law" we learn simply makes note of regularities in human existence (and in the universe at large) and enjoins us to work with them for our ultimate happiness.

Forget about crime. Forget about sin. Forget about "right and wrong." Disobeying the moral law is worse than a crime: it's a mistake.3 In the same way as one knows better than to spit into the wind, a healthy society doesn't (in my view) encourage certain practices, for example, the taking of any innocent human life, rape, extramarital sexual relations, divorce, contraception, and so many other things that have become accepted in our society. The West is dying because we won't listen to God—yes—but also because we are too full of ourselves and seeking our immediate gratification even to hear nature.

No matter what one thinks about the content of the natural moral law, anyone who values science in the least has to agree that there are regularities in nature. We can argue about what these regularities indicate, but there should be no disagreement that learning these regularities and working with them is the way to find happiness in this world.


1. Physics, Book II, chapter 2, 198b34–199, Hardie and Gaye translation.

2. See also: Providence and Chance and Intelligence Transcends Science.

3. A variation on Talleyrand. "Stupid" might be more accurate.

Classes began last week, so I've been busy laying a solid foundation for the semester. This piece is partially something I've been working on for something else.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Science and Natural Philosophy

One of the tragedies of the modern age is the pervasiveness of the thought of Immanuel Kant. Kant was expert in posturing his philosophy as scientific, but it was not only unscientific, but actually anti-scientific; Kant doesn't believe we can acutally know things in themself! Stanley Jaki writes very well about Kant's scientific shortcomings; see, for example, the book cited below.

The proper way to look at science is as a subset of a broader philosophy of nature. The following quotation is from a book recommended me by Benedict Ashley.

According to the view proposed here it would be inaccurate to regard mobile [i.e., physical] being as open to study by two distinct sciences, one considering it at its general level and the other considering it in a more proper and precise way. Knowledge that begins with general considerations concerning an object naturally tends to become more precise; unless it does so, it remains intrinsically imperfect. The same science that studies the first principles or ultimate causes in a given order of reality tends, but its intrinsic nature and not by any external force, to complete itself by the study of proximate causes. We do not change sciences in moving from a general to a particular level, so long as we do not change objects. What we do is to change the perfection of our knowledge of the object, we are like the man who recognized the distant object first as only a thing and later came to the much more perfect knowledge of it as a squirrel. Particular scientific knowledge is more perfect since it is more specific, although, from another angle, it is less perfect since it is less certain. General scientific knowledge is more perfect in being more certain but less perfect since it is not proper and precise.


Without previous general science, we would not be able to design instruments and arrange experiments to learn more about what we already know in preinstrumental and pre-experimental ways.

Logically prior and presupposed to refined knowledge through experiment and measurement, our general science of nature is thus immune from the revolutions that have taken place in specialized knowledge. Our means of attaining this general science are no better and no worse than Aristotle’s. They are in fact no different from his. The means is human reason itself, unaided by specialized and mathematical techniques, proceeding only by a logical analysis of general experience which our next chapter will explain.

The world we live in is a unified whole. The object of modern science is the same as that of natural philosophy (nature); the only difference is the methodology through which it looks at nature. Natural philosophy uses the ordinary data of our senses. Modern science uses instruments and specialized techniques. But notice that these instruments and specialized techniques rely on ordinary sense data; so we need to understand the general and ordinary sense data before we can use science's specialized ways of knowing. In other words, natural philosophy is foundational to modern science. But the advantage of modern science is that it is more precise.

Vincent E. Smith, The General Science of Nature (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1958), 38, 41.

Immanuel Kant, Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels, 1775) trans. Stanley Jaki (Scottish Academic Press, 1981), 302pp. Paperback reprint, 1992.

Jaki remarks: "The first full translation of a classic which shows Kant's ineptness in science and his weird ideas of denizens on other planets."

Friday, August 18, 2006

Keystone Anti-terrorism Cops

Great article in the Register (h/t: Slashdot Science) throwing doubt on the plausibility of blowing up an airplane with liquid explosives:

Mass murder in the skies: was the plot feasible?
by Thomas C Greene

The "chemistry" our security experts rely on is more characteristic of Hollywood than of real science. Next thing they'll be whipping up a scare about Islamic radicals bringing down planes with the evil eye!

And even if you want to credit the official hysterics on the technical possibility of the plan, the conclusions to draw from the foiled plot are embarrassing to our Homeland Security efforts. Ann Coulter's conclusions (Terrorists Win: Deodorant Banned From Airplanes) run contrary to the word from the Big Screen:

  • Nothing being done by airport security since 9/11 would prevent a bomb from being brought onto an airplane; and
  • This terrorist plot -- like all other terrorist plots -- was stopped by ethnic profiling.

Coulter's conclusions are this count are somewhat confirmed by James Fallows's recent Atlantic Monthly article1:

The DHS now spends $42 billion a year on its vast range of activities, which include FEMA and other disaster-relief efforts, the Coast Guard, immigration, and border and customs operations. Of this, about $5 billion goes toward screening passengers at airports. The widely held view among security experts is that this airport spending is largely for show. Strengthened cockpit doors and a flying public that knows what happened on 9/11 mean that commercial airliners are highly unlikely to be used again as targeted flying bombs. “The inspection process is mostly security theater, to make people feel safe about flying,” says John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State and the author of a forthcoming book about the security-industrial complex. He adds that because fears “are not purely rational, if it makes people feel better, the effort may be worth it.”

To make us feel better? Is our society that far gone?

No really: why would our government distort the truth? To preserve its power. History shows that no government ever voluntarily cedes authority; unopposed power always gravitates toward a unified center, silently choking off the freedom of the people. Our blind thrashing against our evil opponents only tightens the leash around our necks.


1. Fallows presents a good argument for abandoning the "war" rhetoric.

Thomas C Greene, "Mass murder in the skies: was the plot feasible?," The Register (UK) (August 17, 2006).

Ann Coulter, "Terrorists Win: Deodorant Banned From Airplanes," Human Events Online (August 16, 2006).

James Fallows, "Declaring Victory," The Atlantic Monthly (September 2006). Subscription required for full-text access.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Religion of Star Trek

As I did last year, I am commemorating today the anniversary of one of the most awesome human achievements, the first manned lunar landing. In that post, we saw the exploration of space is too often used as an anodyne for the infinite longings in the human heart. As far as cultural influence is concerned, Star Trek rivals the actual space program in cultural influence. What ideas lie behind the Trek universe and propagate through its popularity?

Salvation from Above

First let's examine the fictional origins of the Trek universe. In Star Trek: First Contact, the "next generation" crew of Enterprise is thrown back in time to the mid-21st century to witness an historic moment in the Star Trek mythology. In the (supposedly) semi-barbaric aftermath of "World War III," Zefram Cochrane1 invents the warp engine that will propel mankind to the stars. This first run coincides with a routine Vulcan mapping mission close enough to detect the "warp signature," thereby initiating humanity's first contact with extra-terrestrials.

As one fan site puts it

On that evening [sic] an alien ship from the planet Vulcan made first contact with humanity. This event over the course of the next fifty years saw an end to war, hunger, poverty and all the social ills that plagued society.

From this "first contact" mankind is able to found the United Federation of Planets. In some unexplained way, man's contact with supernal forces recreates his nature so that he no longer suffers the many moral limitations that presently plague us. (Exactly what primal hunger in man this visitation satisfies we are left to puzzle for ourselves; we return to this question shortly.) The Federation is a socialist utopia. As Jay Johansen puts it,

There is no money, for everyone simply works out of a desire to contribute to society and help his fellow man, and takes back only what he needs. Private enterprise is the enemy, at best an amusing throwback to less enlightened times, at worst a dangerous villain to be fought and defeated. There is no need for a multitude of competing organizations within society. Instead the people voluntarily cede all authority to a single organization controlling all aspects of life, for this promotes co-operation and efficiency.

The Anti-Religion

Again, Jay Johansen notes:

In the first episode [sic?] of Next Generation, "Q" puts humanity on trial. One of his accusations is that humans kill each other in "disputes over your tribal gods". Note Picard's reply. He doesn't say that some people have used religion for their own personal ends, or that religious freedom is something worth fighting for. No, he replies that humanity has "outgrown" that - in other words, he apologizes for the existence of religion in human history.

This approach reeks of John Lennon's unimaginative manifesto Imagine, about which I've written before. The underlying belief is that all our unhappiness and strife originates in the "superstitious prohibitions" of religion.2 Essentially, Lennon idolizes his own desires.

The Creator's Beliefs

Now we turn to the actual origin of the Trek universe. Its anti-religious philosophy originates in the personal beliefs of the show's creator, Gene Roddenberry. An extensive 1991 interview with Roddenberry in The Humanist reveals much about the personal credo out of which Star Trek sprang. The article notes Roddenberry's reception of the Humanist Arts Award from the American Humanist Association on May 10, 1991, and opens with some background on its subject:

Gene Roddenberry is one of the most influential yet unheralded humanists of the twentieth century. His two most famous creations, Star Trek and its successor Star Trek: The Next Generation, are solidly based upon humanistic principles and ideas. His creations have moved, inspired and sparked the imaginations of millions of people around the world. The basic massage of both Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation is that human beings are capable of solving their own problems rationally and that, through critical thinking and cooperative effort, humanity will progress and evolve.3

Roddenberry clearly understands the profound cultural effect of his beliefs:

...Star Trek is my statement to the world. Understand that Star Trek is more than just my political philosophy. It is my social philosophy, my racial philosophy, my overview on life and the human condition. I have been able to comment on so many different facets of humanity because both Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation have been so wide-ranging in the subjects they’ve covered.

The interview voices many typical humanist anti-religious prejudices as well as the cow-eyed utopianism so characteristic of the mid-20th century, but one statement of Roddenberry's in particular is worth discussion:

Censorship traveled a wide path. There was censorship about areas of skin that were left open. If a girl was in a light blouse and her nipples raised and showed through the blouse, you had to have band-aids over the nipples. You could not have visible nipples. How much skin was permitted to show used to be almost a matter of geometry and measurement. I remember doing shows that showed the inside of a woman’s leg. Those shows were turned down because, for some reason, the inside of the leg was considered vulgar.

Let's overlook the verbal imprecision: it is not so much the body-part that is considered vulgar, as showing the body-part. What is interesting here is how he sees something as potent in meaning as a woman's body to lack any special significance. To him the sacredness of sexuality—a proxy for the sacredness of the human person in whom sexuality resides and from whom every person issues—is just another thing in the world among so many equivalent things. (It is also interesting that he says "girl" instead of "woman"—like the show, he was an interesting mixture of the "progressive" and the "unenlightened" throw-back.)

All Being Equal

"All other things being equal" (Latin: ceteris paribus) is a common assumption of modern reductionist science. Understood as a methodology valid in a limited domain, there is nothing wrong with the assumption. The problem comes in extending the assumption beyond its domain of validity.

Such an extension of "all things being equal" allows me to look at my desire for sex, for example, as just another desire like filling my belly or emptying my bowels. But if the world has a structure outside my desires, then perhaps I cannot treat the object of my sexual desire as just another thing in the world, worthy of no more consideration or respect than a shrub or a grub or a goat. To Roddenberry and company, the enemy of desire is traditional religion, which "creates" the moral law. In reality, the moral law resides in the natures of created things themselves (including human nature). Because man has an unfortunate natural tendency to contract into himself and arrogate mastery to himself, traditional religious belief is necessarily to protect the moral law by opening its adherents to an Authority beyond themselves, an Authority that is the ultimate Source of the natures of things.

Another striking point is the presumption that basic moral norms will persist after the overthrow of traditional morality. Somehow in the Trek future, man has enough repect for "the given" to refrain from tampering with Jean-Luc Picard's male pattern baldness, for example, and to cast gratuitous melding of man with machine (viz., Borg) as evil. No pregnant men, children gestated in vitro, etc. (Or perhaps Roddenberry was keeping his true beliefs under wraps for fear of losing his audience, a fear he voices in the mentioned interview.) We will return to this point in a moment.

Blindness as religion

Now that we have explored the "all things being equal" reflex, we can understand the need fulfilled by a human encounter with intelligent extraterrestrial life: to strip man of his privileged place in creation. In a previous post I quoted Walker Percy's observation that, as a symbol-mongering animal, man is radically different from the other animals that only use signs. In lower animals, sensory information is either useful or ignored; the information begins in the world and the line of causality terminates in the world. Humans, on the other hand, transact with each other using symbols, sounds that aren't useful in any immediate way, but allow them to formulate a complete picture of the world. The justification for this picture of the world is not utility, e.g., whether the sun or the earth is stationary has practical usefulness to very few people's lives. The line of causality from space-time events that communicate symbols flows into the human person, and where it terminates is not in space-time events, understood in the usual way. E.g., how does the knowledge that the Earth revolves around the Sun affect your life? Directly speaking it doesn't, but indirectly it changes everything.

Man is not formless matter to be shaped at will by a cadre of self-annointed conditioners. Human life has a definite structure that will not suffer tampering, and the most distinctive aspect of that structure is man's awareness of the world and of his place in it.

Of course, humanists like Roddenberry and Sagan are mistaken in believing that man's privileged place in creation requires uniqueness. It's almost as if they believe they can shorten the tallest kid in school by observing that other people out in the world are just as tall.4 The discovery of other symbol-mongers will not make man any less of a symbol-monger.

The adherent of such beliefs tries to treat himself as a mere thing in a universe of mere things. There is evident in Roddenberry's beliefs a residual respect for the givenness of the world, and the "dignity" of the individual, but this respect is merely a cultural residuum of Christianity and has no real basis in Roddenberry's underlying philosophy5. Generations raised on such philosophy lack a moral cultural formation to fall back on; they, along with Bertrand Russell, will be unable to say that their belief that cruel torture is wrong has any higher moral standing than a preference for oysters. Like the students in Hitchcock's Rope, Roddenberry's disciples will take him at his word, with disasterous consequences.6

The exception implicit to "all things being equal" is the person advocating this idea: he thinks everything should be equal, reduced to a mere thing, except for himself. Unfortunatly such egoistic priviledge doesn't transport well to other people, especially when those people are egoists. In the end, such ideology demotes everyone to the status of thing. But by encouraging moral blindness, it primarily dehumanizes its devotees.

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see....
Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them. (Ps 115:4-5,8; cf. Ps 135)

A Reposte to the Federation

For a refreshingly anti-utopian vision of the future, see Serenity. It is an entertaining film about a motley crew of rebels that strives to undermine a very Trek-like galactic federation by publishing the truth of its abuses of its citizenry. (Expect an interesting premise, a well-paced plot and good effects, but don't expect high drama or profound character studies.)

In this context, it would be a crime to neglect the masterful Trek parody Galaxy Quest.


1. Yeah, it wouldn't be sci-fi without a "Z" or "X" name somewhere.

2. Happiness here defined as momentary personal satisfaction, instead of the fulfillment of one's life as a whole.

3. The implication is that religious people are irrational and disbelieve in the efficacy of "critical thinking and cooperative effort" for worldly progress. It would be more accurate to say that religious people believe in the necessity of these things, but not their sufficiency. Only someone as credulous as a hard-core secularist could, ignoring the history of the 20th century, believe that these are all that are necessary.

4. The metaphor is imprefect, since, unlike height, which is a difference in degree, symbol-mongering is different in kind from sign-mongering.

5. See Percy quotation in Appendix.

6. The film was modelled after the real-life murder-conspiracy by Leopold and Loeb.

Jay Johansen, "The World View of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Babylon 5" (24 Jun 1998), accessed November 27, 2005.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

David Alexander, " Interview of Gene Roddenberry: Writer, Producer, Philosopher, Humanist," The Humanist (March/April 1991)

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

Opentopia entry for Gene Roddenberry.

Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle (New York: Noonday Press/Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1997).

Bertrand Russell, "Science and Ethics" Religion and Science (Oxford University Press, 1961).

Also interesting: Economics of Star Trek, Roddenberry Obituary


If asked to define the conventional wisom of the twnetieth century, that is to say, a kind of low common denominator of belief held more or less unconsciously by most denizens of the century, I would think it not unreasonable to state it in two propositions which represent its two major components, the one deriving from the profound impact of the scientific revolution, the other representing a kind of attenuated legacy of Christianity.

(1) Man can be understood as an organism in an environment, a sociological unit, an encultured creature, a psychological dynamism endowed genetically like other organisms with needs and drives, who through evolution has developed strategies for learning and surviving by means of certain adaptive transactions with the environment.

(2) Man is also understood to be somehow endowed with certain other unique properties which he does not share with other organisms—with certain inalienable rights, reason, freedom, and an intrinsic dignity—and as a consequence the highest value to which a democratic society can be committed is the respect of the sacredness and worth of the individual.

I make the assumption that most educated denizens of the Western world would subscribe in some sense or other to both propositions.

I make the second assumption that the conventional wisdom expressed by these two propositions, taken together, is radically incoherent and cannot be seriously professed without even more serious consequences.

(Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle, 20)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Noteworthy Articles on Science and Religion

Before time erases the salience of these items I would like to bring them to your attention. First, I'd like to recommend Martin Hilbert's "Darwin’s Divisions" (June Touchstone) as a spot-on analysis of the issues in the evolution debate in the Catholic Church.

Second, an article (subscription required) in Physics Today on examining biological systems from a physical point of view contained a provocative graph:

[From the caption: binding energy (purple); bending energy (blue); fracture energy (green); electrostatic energy (orange)]

The text explains

As the characteristic size approaches that of biological macromolecules, all the energies converge. The convergence is remarkable, since the energies range over 20 orders of magnitude as object size scales from subatomic to macroscopic; its existence is an opportunity for complex physical phenomena and processes that are evidently utilized by life. Broadly speaking, the interplay between thermal and deterministic forces is what gives rise to the rich behavior of molecular machines. For example, thermal effects permit such processes as diffusion, conformational changes, the dissolution of hydrogen bonds, and the wandering of charges from their molecular hosts.

Is there any particular reason that this should be so from known physical principles? Unfortunately I don't know the more fundamental physical details, but I suspect that many of these processes are "emergent" in the chemistry (e.g., of hydrogen bonds). Perhaps one could call the convergence an "anthropic coincidence," but I think it's better to say that it is a manifestation of the limitations of science (I'll explain why this better in a future post, but for now you might look at this).

Third, an opinion piece by Murray Peshkin in this month's Physics Today is worth examining as a indicative of the "religion-science dialogue."

Science and religion have different assumptions, different rules of inference, and different definitions of truth or reality. The fence that surrounds science is the test by experiment. That fence is both the greatest strength and the most fundamental limitation of science, and it needs to be respected from both sides. Scientists may have opinions about religion, but they cannot honestly invoke the authority of science when they try to apply the logic of science on the other side of the fence. Similarly, creationists and advocates of intelligent design should not pretend to be conducting a scientific argument.

Notice how he observes the empirically-based fence surrounding science. The article (as is all too typical) doesn't even attempt to describe what real bodies of knowledge exist outside the fence. Religious faith lacks any objective meaning and is relegated to pure subjectivity. So much for the "science-religion dialogue": it might more accurately described as the "science-to-religion diktat."

Peshkin later writes,

K. E. Miller, in his book Finding Darwin's God, dissects the objections to evolution and genetics. He then reconciles his Catholic religion with science by invoking the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics.

I like the way he says Miller reconciles "his Catholic religion", because it's not clear that Miller believes in the Catholic Christian Faith—the one given us by Jesus through His Apostles and continued by an unbroken succession of bishops. Peshkin's piece is too brief to handle the subject, but the general assumption among evolution apologists is that somehow the fact that Miller claims to be Catholic in his Faith (and very well may be in a practical sense) and a Darwinist makes it unnecessary to actually compare the intellectual content of that Faith with the tenets of Darwinism. (But then if religion is pure subjectivity, how could it be incompatible with anything?) For a real analysis, see the Hilbert article I recommended first.

Martin Hilbert, "Darwin’s Divisions," Touchstone (June 2006), 28-34.

Rob Phillips and Stephen R. Quake, "The Biological Frontier of Physics," Physics Today (May 2006), 38-43.

Murray Peshkin, "Addressing the public about science and religion," Physics Today (July 2006), 46.