Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Environmentalism and Religion

Freeman Dyson's recent book review concludes with some insightful thoughts:

All the books that I have seen about the science and economics of global warming, including the two books under review, miss the main point. The main point is religious rather than scientific. There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. The ethics of environmentalism are being taught to children in kindergartens, schools, and colleges all over the world.

Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion. And the ethics of environmentalism are fundamentally sound. Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists—holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future. Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion that we can all share, whether or not we believe that global warming is harmful.

Unfortunately, some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet. That is one reason why the arguments about global warming have become bitter and passionate. Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment. The skeptics now have the difficult task of convincing the public that the opposite is true. Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice. Whether they turn out to be right or wrong, their arguments on these issues deserve to be heard.

He's correct that environmentalism is a religion, as it binds people to set of beliefs, and these beliefs are not necessarily based on publicly available reason. I have recently been thinking about extreme environmentalists' condemnation of human life itself as "luxurious living". As Dostoevsky observed, if God is dead, everything is permissible; there are no limits to what man should do. Thus it makes sense that since not everything is permissible, in lieu of the old God, we need a new god, a new standard by which to condemn what is evidently disordered.

Dyson is also right that the debate should not be arbitrarily shut down, as he elsewhere in the article notes that the PC-faction has in Britain; there is still a lot of uncertainty in the science of "climate change." ("Global warming" is passé; it's an open secret that the globe's surface temperature hasn't warmed for a decade now.)

I just by chance ran across another discovery that should effect the "climate change" discussion. UMass Amherst scientists have established that bacteria can metabolize minerals containing carbon and reintroduce it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

According to Petsch, the bottom line is that the release of organic material from sedimentary rocks contributes approximately 2 percent of the carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere each year. While this may seem like a small amount, it is another piece of the puzzle that can be used when determining how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades.

Just goes to show that the science of "climate change" is anything but settled and that discussion should continue.

Freeman Dyson, "The Question of Global Warming," The New York Review of Books 55:10 (June 12, 2008). h/t Touchstone (July/August 2008)

Steven Petsch, "New Piece of Climate Change Puzzle Found In Ancient Sedimentary Rocks by UMass Amherst Researchers" Press Release, July 23, 2008.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Four Levels of Teleology

The existence of teleology (from telos, Greek for end or purpose) is a controversial issue in the study of nature. The Scientific Revolution succeeded in rendering the notion disreputable, largely by ridiculing its abuses and ignoring its strengths.

A big obstacle for moderns to believe in natural purpose is the flattening of language that's occurred since the so-called Enlightenment. Words nowadays mean only one thing (or at least that's the popular perception) and have lost much of their flexibility. Gone are analogous senses of words. Mariano Artigas, in The Mind of the Universe, goes a long distance to rehabilitating teleology for the modern mind by helpfully distinguishing four senses or levels. Each higher level presupposes all the lower levels and adds something new. Figure 4.2 (p. 126) summarizes what he explains at greater length in the text:

  1. END of a PROCESS
    "The End" of a film, of a journey, of an exam.
    Final stages of any process
    Attractive or repulsive physical forces
    Multiple tendencies of living beings
  3. VALUE for a SUBJECT
    Something good or bad for the subject who acts
  4. PURPOSE of a PLAN
    There are known aims and designs

The text:

On the first level, teleology refers to the "end" of a "process." Sometimes we can distinguish particular stages in a process and consider the conclusion of any one of them as an end. We can speak about ends in a spatial sense, but when we talk about teleology we are primarily interested in the ends of processes that develop in time. This meaning of "end" is at the same time something real and completely neutral from a philosophical point of view. However, it is a necessary component of the remaining three levels.

The second level contains a stronger finalist meaning, as it refers to the "goal" of a "tendency." This meaning presupposes the first and adds something, the existence of a tendency toward a determined end. This is no longer a neutral issue from the scientific or philosophical points of view, and it poses two problems: how we can determine the existence of tendencies and how we can explain them.

On the third level a new qualification is introduced: we say that particular ends have a "value" for some "subject." Here, "value" means something is convenient or inconvenient, good or bad, for a particular subject or kind of subject. Discussions about teleology sooner or later refer to values.

These three levels exist in both natural and human activity. But on the fourth level there is a new kind of teleology that belongs only to the purposeful activity of intelligent beings: to reach a "purpose" as a consequence of a "plan." This is the level on which we can properly speak of purposeful actions and of design.

Intelligent purposeful action is teleological because, by its very nature, it is directed toward something that can be considered to be the end of the action. This end is a goal, as far as it is reached as the result of a tendency, and is also a value, because otherwise the subject would not desire it. Natural activities are not so clearly teleological because it may be difficult to determine whether they are directed toward determinate goals, and because it may be even more difficult to determine whether these goals, if they exist, can be considered real values.

The problem of natural teleology has a double aspect: first to determine whether natural tendencies toward goals that can be considered values exist, and then, if these goals exist, to determine whether they require the existence of some intelligent plan that governs the activity of nature.

But to return to teleology in nature, a paper by John Keck, the director of the Institute for the Study of Nature, recently published in The Thomist discusses the natural teleologies in the laws of physics. The introduction observes that physics necessarily deals with teleology (on Artigas's level 2): "In book 2 of the Physics, Aristotle establishes that nature's obvious regularities—its tendency to act in particular ways (which itself maintains the good of the cosmic order)—reveal an ordering to specific ends. That things happen 'always or for the most part' indicates finality or purpose." The paper continues,

The only alternative to purpose is chance and, although chance events often obtain, the natural world is inherently teleological. Scientific laws, modern and ancient, physical, chemical, and biological, capture nature's regularities and im-plicitly testify to teleology. That baking soda and vinegar react expansively, and that confetti is normally 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 conditio sine qua non. (532-3)

The rest of the paper is devoted to observing how the ends of physics processes constitute values (Artigas's level 3). The main focus is on establishing how gravity and entropy constitute constitute natural motions toward the ends of spatial unity and disunity.

Gravity is the kind of motion that Aristotle describes in book 8 of the Physics as "bring[ing] to actuality the proper activities that [material bodies] potentially possess." It is a natural motion—a natural motion toward physical or spatial unity, a surrender of the masses' separate existences to a greater participation in the transcendental perfection of unity. The more matter they contain, the more they are already united in sharing a sympathy of being, and the more strongly (i.e., with greater force) they are drawn together still. (543)

That the end of entropy is disunity is indisputable in the sense of level-2 teleology, but the conclusion seems forced with regard to level 3: to what extent can disunity be considered a good? Instead I think that Dr. Keck would be better to observe that matter as such need not tend toward a good, because matter, insofar as it is matter, has no perfections (I speak of matter in the Aristotelian sense here). Matter is closely allied with the notion of the infinite (both are privations of form or limit), so it would make sense that matter as such would tend "toward" boundlessness (cf. Physics III.7.207b35-208a4). Other than that complaint, I can find nothing to disagree with.

The paper also also mentions that "On the level of individual charges, the action of electro-magnetic forces tends toward the natural end of (electrical) charge neutrality" (542).

That physical matter (mass-energy) has ends constitutes a continuity with the living world. Once life is constituted (however that happens), the preservation of the organismic configuration of matter becomes a value for the organism. As Hans Jonas writes,

[L]iving things are creatures of need. Only living things have needs and act on needs. Need is based both on the necessity for the continuous self-renewal of the organism by the metabolic process, and on the organism's elemental urge thus precariously to continue itself. This basic self-concern of all life, in which necessity and will are bound together, manifests itself on the level of animality as appetite, fear, and all the rest of the emotions. The pang of hunger, the passion of the chase, the fury of combat, the anguish of flight, the lure of love—these, and not the data transmitted by the receptors, imbue objects with the character of goals, negative or positive, and make behavior purposive. the mere element of effort lifts bodily activity out of the class of mechanical performance, and the fact that movement requires effort means that an animal will move only under the incentive of an interest.

... The organism has to keep going, because to be going is its very existence—which is revocable—and, threatened with extinction, it is concerned in existing. There is no analogue in the machine to the instinct of self-preservation—only to the latter's antithesis, the final entropy of death. (126)

As a matter of fact, every part of an organism is united in the effort to survive, and I think it's safe to say that this unity of effort is what defines their unity of form.

But the question of how to move from level 3 to level 4, that is, how to go from animal life to rational life, remains to be seen. Jonas points to the human capacity for image making, which is closely related to the sense of sight.

Some sort of disengagement from the causality of the encounter [with the sensible object] provides the neutral freedom for letting the "other" appear for itself. (The organization of our senses assures this disengagement in advance.) In that appearance the affective basis ("stimulation," "irritation") is canceled, its record neutralized....

Vision, of all senses, most conspicuously realizes in its normal performance this double feat of "abstraction": setting off the self-contained object from the affective condition of sensing, and upholding its identity and unity across the whole range of its possible transformations of appearance, each of which is already an integrated simultaneous manifold. (168-9)

Sight and the image-making capacity share in disengagement from their object. At last month's ISN Summer Conference, Lenny Moss gave an outstanding keynote address that showed how the concept of detachment permeates nature from human beings down to the lowliest bits of matter. Detachment is "is a measure of the relative independence of an entity from a larger milieu—its ability to resist the forces of thermal or other kinds of winds." As entities ascend the hierarchy of being, they become more detached from their environment. With mounting being and detachment, an entity acquires the ability to carry a history. "To have a history requires the ability of an entity to buffer itself against random perturbations, or perhaps even to set its own agenda as to how it will receive and respond to stimuli from without." (It's not hard to see how Moss's scheme allows for free will.)

Similarly, notice that each of Artigas's levels of teleology is at a greater remove from the subject of the telos. The end of a process is simply part of the process. The goal of a tendency is a future part of regular process. A value for a subject is hypothetical or possible future part of a process. The purpose of a plan is possible future part of an intelligent subject's activity.

Mariano Artigas, The Mind of the Universe, (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000), 126-127.

John W. Keck, "The Natural Motion of Matter in Newtonian and Post-Newtonian Physics," The Thomist 71 (October 2007), 529-54. [The URL works at present, but may change soon.]

Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001/1966).

Lenny Moss, "Detachment, Genomics and the Nature of Being Human," ISN Summer Conference 2008 (June 13, 2008). [published proceedings planned]

Monday, July 07, 2008

Graying and Dying

Just a short note to point out a couple of interesting articles on the graying and dying of our population. First, Boston Globe op-ed by Jeff Jacoby on the coming population bust.

Human fertility has been dropping for years and is now below replacement levels - the minimum required to prevent depopulation - in scores of countries, including China, Japan, Canada, Brazil, Turkey, and all of Europe. The world's population is still rising, largely because of longer life spans - more people live to old age than in the past. But with far fewer children being born today, there will be far fewer adults bearing children tomorrow. In some countries, the collapse has already begun. Russia, for example, is now losing 700,000 people a year.

Even in the United States, where birth rates are still (barely) at replacement level, there are hints of the dislocations to come: In Pittsburgh, reports The New York Times, deaths now outnumber births and hospitals are closing obstetrics wards or converting them to acute care for the elderly. Pittsburgh's public school enrollment was 70,000 in the 1980s. It is 30,000 today - and falling.

By mid-century, according to one UN estimate, there will be 248 million fewer children than there are now. To a culture that has been endlessly hectored about the dangers of overpopulation, that might sound like welcome news. It isn't. No society gains when it loses its most precious resource, and no resource is more valuable than the human mind. The coming demographic winter will chill us all.

Second, NPR's Here and Now had a program a couple weeks ago on Andrew Blechman's Leisureville: Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias. Sounds like the older generation is partying down, without regard for the decreasing number of young people to support their benefits.

Jeff Jacoby's follow-up op-ed underscores the dire economic effects of an aging population:

Far from boosting the economy, an aging population depresses it. As workers are taxed more heavily to support surging numbers of elders, they respond by working less, which leads to stagnation, which reduces economic opportunity still further. "Imagine that all your taxes went for nothing but Social Security and Medicare," says Longman in "Demographic Winter," a new documentary about the coming population decline, "and you still didn't have health care as a young person."