Monday, December 24, 2007

Keeping Silence

With everyone clamoring to cash in on Christmas1, it is difficult to shut out the noise long enough to reflect on the real meaning of this silent night.

Last month's issue of The Atlantic featured an insightful article by Walter Kirn on multitasking and how it is driving us to distraction:

Through a variety of experiments, many using functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity, [scientists have] torn the mask off multitasking and revealed its true face, which is blank and pale and drawn.

Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant switching and pivoting—energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

What does this mean in practice? Consider a recent experiment at UCLA, where researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds. The subjects’ brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus—which stores and recalls information—to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive activities. Thanks to this switch, the subjects managed to sort the cards just as well with the musical distraction—but they had a much harder time remembering what, exactly, they’d been sorting once the experiment was over.

The lack of silence robs us of the ability to be fully present to the Here and Now. To know something instead of simply touching and releasing.

Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.

The next generation, presumably, is the hardest-hit. They’re the ones way out there on the cutting edge of the multitasking revolution, texting and instant messaging each other while they download music to their iPod and update their Facebook page and complete a homework assignment and keep an eye on the episode of The Hills flickering on a nearby television. (A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53 percent of students in grades seven through 12 report consuming some other form of media while watching television; 58 percent multitask while reading; 62 percent while using the computer; and 63 percent while listening to music. “I get bored if it’s not all going at once,” said a 17-year-old quoted in the study.) They’re the ones whose still-maturing brains are being shaped to process information rather than understand or even remember it.

This is the great irony of multitasking—that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking. It forces us to chop competing tasks into pieces, set them in different piles, then hunt for the pile we’re interested in, pick up its pieces, review the rules for putting the pieces back together, and then attempt to do so, often quite awkwardly. (Fact, and one more reason the bubble will pop: A brain attempting to perform two tasks simultaneously will, because of all the back-and-forth stress, exhibit a substantial lag in information processing.)

Productive? Efficient? More like running up and down a beach repairing a row of sand castles as the tide comes rolling in and the rain comes pouring down.

The next point is a bit off the main topic of the post, but not the topic of this blog: how we think about ourselves—the model we pattern ourselves after—is a big part of the reason we find ourselves in a ceaseless frenzy of activity:

Multitasking, a definition: “The attempt by human beings to operate like computers, often done with the assistance of computers.”

...In the days of rudimentary chemistry, the mind was thought to be a beaker of swirling volatile essences. Then came classical physical mechanics, and the mind was regarded as a clocklike thing, with springs and wheels. Then it was steam-driven, maybe. A combustion chamber. Then came electricity and Freud, and it was a dynamo of polarized energies—the id charged one way, the superego the other.

Now, in the heyday of the microchip, the brain is a computer. A CPU.

Except that it’s not a CPU. It’s whatever that thing is that’s driven to misconstrue itself—over and over, century after century—as a prototype, rendered in all-too- vulnerable tissue, of our latest marvel of technology.

Funny how when we think of ourselves as a thing, we truly come to acquire the attributes of that thing.2 There is a point to the regnant thinking of our elites that emphasizes the need for role models: but what if our role model is a computer?

Recovering the Silence

As Josef Pieper wrote, leisure is the basis of culture. Only by taking time to withdraw from the activities of the world can we reflect on it and ourselves and see the direction we need to our lives to point. Pieper writes that the church (building) is to space what the sabbath rest is to time.

It seems particularly a problem up in New England where I live that people have deficient notion of the sacredness of the church (though this trend is growing elsewhere). A Protestant friend back in New York would often pray in a Catholic church because, he said, there was a silence there not present in other churches. (Yes, the silence follows on a Presence. Has an unusual feeling of "silence" ever alerted you to being watched?) Catholics in this part of the country have trouble appreciating that their quotidian conversations belong outside the Church.3 A silence should reign that allows us to hear our Lord's "still, small voice."

Only if we recover the silence, can we "hear" the Presence come in our flesh:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

(Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, a fifth-century hymn from the Liturgy of Saint James, translated into English by Gerald Moultrie in 1864)


1. Or maybe all the pre-Christmas clamor is secretly a financial penalty imposed on those who fail to recognize that Christmas begins on the 25th, along with the "after-Christmas" sales? One has to wonder how long we can make the "Christmas" season without diluting it to meaninglessness—a place in western NH had its Christmas lights up before Halloween (I'm ashamed to say it was a Catholic shrine—this diocese is particularly unhealthy). One hears "Christmas" songs by former Beatles and wonders how far we can distance Christmas from its fundamental meaning before it loses all meaning: how long can we go on being excited about being excited about... something?

2. Walker Percy writes about the transparency and malleability of the self in The Message in the Bottle.

3. Granted, there is still some notion that the church is sacred space, but it is compromised. The old people who after Mass shout the rosary across the Church to each other likewise detract from the silence—admittedly they are at least praying, though it is praying publicly what (unlike like the Liturgy of the Hours or the Mass) isn't a public prayer. Back at St. Leo's in Fairfax, Virginia, the rosary group very considerately withdrew to a small section of the church to allow others elsewhere to continue their personal prayer in silence.

Walter Kirn, "The Autumn of the Multitaskers" The Atlantic (November 2007). Subscription required for full-text access.

Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Amazing Evolution!

Just came across another example of superfluous invocations of evolution in this New York Times article:

Spines, Made Extra Curvy for Women by John Schwartz

Let me just start off by saying that, as you may know from reading this blog before, I really don't have a dog in the fight of the "Evolution Wars." Whether or not God used evolution or some other secondary cause to develop life seems in the big picture much less interesting to me than investigating the actual natures of organisms.

With that disclaimer, here's some of the article's text:

Anthropologists have long known that the lower spine in humans developed a unique forward curve to help compensate for the strains that arose when the primate ancestors began walking upright. Researchers looked for a mechanism that compensated for pregnancy’s additional burden as well.

What they found, said Katherine K. Whitcome, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard and the lead author of the paper, was evidence that evolution had produced a stronger and more flexible lower spine for women.

I don't understand why (aside from personal piety) evolution has to be brought into the picture at all. Concretely speaking, is there any difference between saying that humans developed such-and-such feature and saying that they have such-and-such feature. What value does evolution actually add to the discussion?

Answer: absolutely zero. Judging from the Times article (and from previous similar instances), there's nothing in the science here particular to evolution. It's pretty old news that women are more flexible than men. Evolution is just a buzz word that sexes up an somewhat interesting but rather unremarkable observation.1

But then there's this paragraph:

As solutions go, the extra flexibility is only partly successful, Professor Shapiro said, since women still commonly complain of back trouble during pregnancy. And that is the difference between the way that evolution works and the way that actual designers do their job, Dr. Whitcome said: nature tinkers. For natural selection to favor one feature over another, “It doesn’t have to be an ideal solution,” she said. “It just has to be better.”

That's the standard claim: that evolution explains shortcomings in somatic form. But that claim treats an organism's traits as if they were independent from each other and not integrally related parts of a whole. How do we know that the "imperfection" in spine design is a "bug" and not a "feature" for some other reason? How do we know that the "imperfection" isn't necessary because "fixing" it would wildly upset another part of the organism?

Nature differs from human designers in that it works with the whole organism. Organisms are much more perfect, more integrated, than anything humans can every make on their own. We humans have trouble even comprehending all the interconnections between the different parts and metabolic pathways of an organism. That is why artificial genetic modification (as opposed to artificial breeding) is the height of arrogance.

It is also presumptuous to declare the shortcomings in the female human spine a defect. Years ago geneticists declared DNA that didn't code for proteins "junk DNA." Now we are learning that it is far from junk. The present case is just another instance in which scientists, failing to see the use of something, declare it useless.

When will we learn that nature holds much more wisdom than we can know?


1. It would be quite another thing if the scientists traced out an evolutionary pathway that resulted in the spine curvature. But that would involve genetic and biochemical work, and the journal article in which the findings are reported is by two anthropologists, so the chance of there being any such work here is nil.

John Schwartz, "Spines, Made Extra Curvy for Women" New York Times (December 13, 2007).

Katherine K. Whitcome, Liza J. Shapiro & Daniel E. Lieberman, "Fetal load and the evolution of lumbar lordosis in bipedal hominins," Nature 450 (13 December 2007), 1075-1078.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Climate Models Found Wanting

Science Blog posted a report this morning, "New study increases concerns about climate model reliability"1:

A new study comparing the composite output of 22 leading global climate models with actual climate data finds that the models do an unsatisfactory job of mimicking climate change in key portions of the atmosphere.

Here is a provocative paragraph from the article's body:

The 22 climate models used in this study are the same models used by the UN Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), which recently shared a Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.

The news is rather timely, as Gore just gave his Nobel lecture yesterday.

Of course, this is just another example of the a Nobel Committee rewarding ideas that have yet to show their worth. The Prizes have to be awarded to the living and I think this colors the culture of the Committees to favor the hear-and-now even when none of the nominees are all that old or near death. So, the fact that the committee would honor stylish results over truth is built into its constitution.2 But then, Alfred Nobel himself was—like all of us—the product of a here-and-now culture that values results over truth.

Doubtless someone will point out the concluding line of the original journal article's abstract: "These conclusions contrast strongly with those of recent publications based on essentially the same data." But that's exactly my point: the whole field of climate modeling is so riven by uncertainty that no one can really say what to believe. Liberals may well have a point that industry should be regulated, but to use "climate change" as justification at this point is tendentious.3


1. This link includes the contact information for the story (the journal is published by Wiley Interscience). It's on a site run by the AAAS, of all organizations. Maybe this signals an openness to free discussion of climate change on their part?

2. I take consolation from the fact that awardees tend to come from the left side: receiving a prize as big and prestigious as the Nobel would tend to have a stultifying effect on one's future productivity.

3. Today's liberals could well make the point based on a just ordering of the goods of society. Unfortunately, in order to eliminate scruples about some of their favorite "rights" (e.g., to unrestricted sexual license) they've had to jettison not only the notion of the good, but also the notion of the human person for whom and by whom society exists.

David H. Douglass, et al., "A comparison of tropical temperature trends with model predictions," International Journal of Climatology (Online: 5 Dec 2007).

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Nature Institute

“Is it, then, possible to imagine a new Natural Philosophy, continually conscious that the 'natural object' produced by analysis and abstraction is not reality but only a view, and always correcting the abstraction? I hardly know what I am asking for. I hear rumours that Goethe's approach to nature deserves fuller consideration—that even Dr Steiner may have seen something that orthodox researchers have missed. The regenerate science which I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. ”
—C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

In June I took a week-long course at The Nature Institute near the town of Harlemville in New York state and I thought I would give you a report (albeit greatly belated). My overall experience was very positive.

Encountering Goethean Science

The Nature Institute engages in science after the manner of Goethe. In a nutshell, one could describe Goethe's approach as Platonic without mathematical speculation, or one could describe it as phenomenological or qualitative. An article from their newsletter lists some synonyms of Goethean science:

  • Holistic science
  • Goethean science
  • Phenomena-centered science
  • Qualitative science
  • Participative science
  • Contextual science

The course was taught by Institute President Craig Holdrege and his wife Henrike. (The other principal of the Institute, Steve Talbott, was away for most of the time I was there.) We spent part of each day learning from Henrike about the "elements" of earth, water, air. In practice, these are equivalent to the three states of matter, but concretized in the conditions of the world, e.g., most liquid in the world is water and not quicksilver or ammonia. The other part of the day we spent with Craig "in the field" observing nature firsthand. Our usual venue was the wetland entrusted to the Institute's stewardship only a short walk away. But we also retreated to the Institute to pool our observations, to discuss, and to analyze.

What most impressed me was Craig Holdrege’s aversion to mystical explanatory invocations and his commitment to objective observation and explanation. Having now seen (and participated in) a solid example of the practice of Goethean science, I understand that it really is possible to do rigorous qualitative science, albeit very difficult because qualities are so much harder to pin down that quantities. Another article from their newsletter describes the challenge well:

A new kind of objectivity. Every scientist must learn to be rigorous and objective in his or her judgments. But this is not so easy once we have rediscovered our ties of kinship with, and responsibility for, nature. It is always tempting to yield to mere sentiment or wishful thinking, and to mistake one's own soul for the soul of nature. So the demands for clear judgment and knowledge of self are much greater for the holistic than for the conventional researcher. As Owen Barfield1 once remarked, "Any reasonably honest fool can be objective about objects." But it's a different matter when, having experienced ourselves in the world and the world in ourselves, we must nevertheless distinguish our purely individual, subjective tendencies from the surrounding life of the world.

The last day Senior Researcher Steve Talbott returned to the area and stopped by the Institute. I got to talk to him for more than half an hour. You may have read some of Steve's articles in The New Atlantis; he also edits NetFuture, a periodical that explores the subtle ways our technology molds us. Steve comes from Oregon and attended Wheaton College. He was (and is still) a neighbor of Craig’s. From their conversations, Craig had him edit a manuscript. When Craig decided to start the Institute, he asked Steve on board.

Craig taught at the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf school for many years before starting the Institute. He lived in Germany a while and studied at the Goetheneum, the center of Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophical Movement. While in Germany he met and married Henrike. Henrike’s specialty is projective geometry.

The others attending the course were, as one might expect, “crunchy,” that is, interested in getting back to nature (I must admit strong sympathy, given the crass commercialization of culture and the industrialization of agriculture these days). As far as I could tell without forcing political conversations, they for the most part seemed to share the generally liberal opinions most people hold in the Northeast these days, but I was impressed by their outgoing, generous demeanors and their desire to engage the truth of the world. I picked up on no overt ideological agendas, such as feminism or communism. Almost everyone there came through some association with some work of Rudold Steiner, the great expositor of Goethean science. Steiner was the originator of the Waldorf School movement and many participants worked at Waldorf schools.

Impressions and Anaylsis

Goethe speaks of finding archetypes. Certainly he was of a Platonic mindset, which bodes well, but the great value of his science lies in its phenomenology. The human intellect has a unfortunate tendency to become satisfied with established notions and to contract within itself. Goethe’s phenomenology is a model for engaging the world and makes a superb complement to the Aristotelian philosophy of nature.

That being said, I’m not sure what to make of Rudolf Steiner or anthroposophy (his "spiritual science"). Steiner, as you may know, was the driving force behind Goethean studies, and his influence extends to the present. The Institute lies in the Hawthorne Valley, which is a hotbed of Steiner activity, and is adjacent to a biodynamic farm (an example of another movement Steiner started) and down the road from a Waldorf school. My reservations stem from Steiner's one-time association with Madam Blavatsky (anthroposophy retains many of the same esoteric ideas of her theosophy) and his rejection of many essential elements of creedal Christianity, such as the Virgin Birth and Jesus’ bodily Resurrection, not to mention his embrace of karma and reincarnation.

Still, a friend I made at the course tells me that Steiner didn't insist on people accepting his ideas in toto, and was in fact opposed to blind invocations of his doctrines (he was consistently eclectic, so to speak). Some of Steiner’s terminology sounds mystical, but may be very reasonable, e.g., his “ethereal body” seems similar to Aristotle’s “vegetative soul.” In general I suspect there are many parallels and resonances between Steiner and Aristotle-Aquinas. My friend sent me copies of a couple of Steiner's talks. One was an excellent review of how modern thought went wrong (nothing original, but excellently written) in which he spoke favorably of St. Thomas. The other was rather mystical and invoked notions like a "Luciferian principle" opposed to a "Christ principle" that combine to constitute the human heart. Ugh.

Another reason for caution is the ambiguity of language. Among the many treasures, I've found terminological imprecision to be an occasional problem in some writings from the Nature Institute (will post more on this later). As far as Steiner is concerned, my suspicion is that he is wont to play a little loose with words, as we see in his redefining "Christianity" to make himself the model Christian. Unfortunately I haven't read enough of his writings to say anything definite.

Having read and reflected on some back issues of the Institute's newsletter, In Context, it strikes me that one big difference between the Nature Institute's Goethean approach, and the Thomistic approach with which I am more familiar is the relationship of knowledge to the senses and to reason. Goetheans dwell on sense information in all its ambiguity; they have an aversion to systematizing and reason in the modern rationalist sense, and perhaps a shyness to reason in the classical-medieval sense, which prevent them from rising much above the senses (both blessing and curse).2 On the other hand, the perennial philosophic approach, while starting in the senses, emphasizes reason and "invisible" principles and uses them to critique the senses. The Goethean center of gravity is the visible, and Thomistic center of gravity is the "invisible."3

There are dangers in both approaches. A truth of faith—our fallen human nature—(but one we can also know without special revelation4) tells us our perceptions are never fully trustworthy because the way we interpret them depends on our natural inclinations, which are not what they should be. There is more to the world than what's visible, and we too easily imagine ourselves and our senses sufficient to everything. The danger of a more dogmatic approach is the mantra of our modern elites and needs hardly be reiterated here: an insensitivity to particulars, and a slothful tendency to rely on vacuous generalities.

To perceive truth most effectively, there must be a creative tension between the senses and reason. Thus there is a necessity for both approaches to the world, and especially to the natural world: the visible and the "invisible" complement each other.

In sum, I learned a lot during my time at The Nature Institute and it gave me much to think about. Like any organization, it has its imperfections, but it has a unique and valuable contribution to make to the study of the natural world: a contribution the like of which we can use much more of these days.


1. Owen Barfield was one of the Inklings (along with Lewis and Tolkien) and studied (in what sense I do not know) anthroposophy; his book Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry was recommended several times during the course.

2. Nevertheless, it seems Goetheans do allow sense impressions to critique "each other"—though to be precise this involves a form of reasoning, even if not abstract.

3. Here I'm concentrating wholly on Goethean science and ignoring the "spiritual" or esoteric side of Steiner. It must be admitted that Thomists do sometimes excessively dwell on the invisible, e.g., allowing an emphasis on primary matter to obscure the importance of secondary matter to Aristotle's thought.

4. Of course we also know our inclinations are not what they should be by the fact that human nature doesn't "work" as it should: witness the necessity to a healthy society of well-formed children, which require the parents' marital fidelity versus natural man's inability to fulfill this obligation.

Steve Talbott, "Goethean Science?", In Context 1 (Spring, 1999), 4.

Steve Talbott, "A Way of Knowing as a Way of Healing," In Context 1 (Spring 1999), 3-5.