Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Brooks and Materialism

I commented on a response to a David Brooks column here. The original column is here. The statement that Derbyshire and friends jumped all over is this:

"Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment."

Derbyshire overlooks the hilarity of Brooks's appeal to "researchers" who have, just now, discovered that people actually like to to be fair, empathetic, and become close to others. Apparently neither Brooks nor the researchers ever had a mother. Instead, Derbyshire and his correspondent treat the statement with deep scientific seriousness that makes them look even more foolish than Brooks.

With respect to Darwinism and materialism in general, Brooks has the naivete of the uninitiated. It is clear that he thinks he is writing on the side of the "good guys", that is, the scientific materialists, but he is charmingly innocent of just how difficult it is to stay within Darwinian orthodoxy. For example, we are regularly told that scientific theories are provisional and always subject to potential revision, evolutionary theory no less than others. What the nasty creationists do is take this reasonable scientific development and distort it into an attack on science itself. Fair enough, the uninitiated thinks. If the scientist tells me that he has a scientific theory that genes are "selfish", and scientific theories are provisional, it is possible that the theory will be revised in the future and we will conclude that genes are not always selfish but may be unselfish. So if "researchers" discover that fairness and empathy are pretty deep drives rather than merely superficial impulses, we can count this as evidence that the selfish theory is wrong or at least incomplete. And in this conclusion the uninitiated reveals his innocent state.

When Darwinists say that a theory like the selfish gene is provisional, they don't mean that it can ever possibly be overthrown by empirical evidence. What they mean is that the precise manner in which any behavior may be accounted for in terms of selfish genes, is provisional. You are more than welcome to propose differing theories as to how sacrificing your life to save a man from a burning car is really selfish, but are never welcome to wonder whether the act might count as evidence against the theory of selfish genes itself. In fact, the latter thought is a dangerous attack on science that has the potential to bring down Western Civilization if it is pondered too long. This goes for evolutionary theory in general. You are more than welcome to speculate how material forces produced the eye, the ear, and even the human mind, but not welcome to wonder whether it is even possible for the human mind to have been caused by purely material causes at all. Again, such questions are a threat to civilization.

If this sounds a lot like how Marxist dogma works, it sounds that way to me too. You are more than welcome to speculate different ways that the capitalist dogs are exploiting the workers (maybe just their selfish genes at work?), but never welcome to wonder whether there might be something more and other going on than simple exploitation.

Empirics and the Selfish Gene

It amazes me how frequently Darwinists insist that their theory is just simple science, then straightforwardly and without embarrassment make anti-scientific pronouncements in its name. A clear case, from the corner at National Review Online, is here. The key quote is the last sentence from the reader:

"The blind, selfish gene is paramount. Always. No matter how much it doesn't look that way here on the outside."

No matter how much it doesn't look that way. Can there be a more anti-empirical statement than that? There is nothing a human being can do, no possible empirical state of affairs, that can count as evidence against the theory of the selfish gene. Because, no matter how unselfish any behavior may appear to be, we know, we just know, that down deep, it is a product of the selfish genes at work. The more altruistic a behavior, the more fiendishly clever those damnable selfish genes must be to hide their work so thoroughly.

John Derbyshire is at least consistent in his application of Darwinism. He steadfastly refuses to read any criticisms of Darwinism by the original authors (all of which he lumps together as "creationists"), and restricts himself to reading Darwinist responses to "creationists." There is a perverse but consistent logic in this. Just as apparently unselfish behavior is always and necessarily a mask for a more fundamental selfishness, so any criticism of Darwinism is always and necessarily a mask for religious fundamentalism, no matter how apparently secular and even reasonable a criticism might sound. The point I made in the first paragraph, for example, is generally not taken by Darwinists as a reasonable question deserving of an intelligent answer, but as evidence that the questioner has a secret creationist agenda that must be exposed and defeated as a matter of the greatest urgency, preferably before the theocracy takes control and banishes Darwin forever.

On just about every other subject John Derbyshire is a fount of wisdom, common sense, and common skepticism; on the issue of Darwinism, for some reason, he behaves as a True Believer.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Gods Are Here

The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world.

This line is from the story The Willows by Algernon Blackwood (from his Best Ghost Stories .) Without spoiling the story, it is uttered by a nameless character known only as "the Swede", a character the story describes as "an unimaginative man." He utters it when he and the narrator become stuck on an island in the Danube, in a section of the river they had been warned to avoid. If you have seen The Blair Witch Project, The Willows is a similar story, but one written by an author of great imagination, depth, and a supreme ability to evoke supernatural horror.

The line captures for me just the feeling I get (or hope I get) when I walk into a Catholic Church, especially one in the traditional style that has not had its beautiful artwork spray-painted over. Perhaps "feeling" is the wrong word, for it emphasizes the subjective. Perception is probably a better word, for perception refers to the external origin of a feeling, rather than the feeling itself. When I walk into a Catholic Church, I perceive that the gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world. Part of that feeling is induced by the ancient history of the Church. As I have remarked in other posts, the Church doesn't go away. Just as we would find disturbing a man who lived for two-thousand years, so I find a public institution that has survived for two-thousand years to be disturbing. What I experience is a feeling, but it is a feeling that is a proper reaction to a fact in the external world. The Church should have died many times in its long history (at least five times according to G.K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man), and yet it lives. If this isn't the makings of a true religion, it is at least the makings of a good ghost story. If the Western world is no longer Catholic in fact or spirit, it is still haunted by Catholicism; and this ghost is a lot more real than anything in Blackwood or M.R. James. It is as real as the old Romanesque Church down your street.

The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world.

Blackwood captures the ambivalent reaction of his characters to their encounter with the supernatural. They have ignored warnings about traveling down the river, blithely confident in their own ability to handle whatever comes. But as the unusual events begin to accumulate, the characters are simultaneously attracted and repelled. As adventurers, the unusual is just what they were seeking. The nature of the events, however, makes them wonder if they have encountered something more than they can handle. Their confidence slowly transforms into terror...

The ambivalent reaction is, I think, appropriate when we attend Mass. God is not Someone to be trifled with. But rather than turning into terror, our apprehension should turn into joy. Thou art glorious in heaven, all-powerful on earth and terrible in hell; but in the Blessed Eucharist Thou art mild, consoling, sweet, and liberal. Yet , what if we never experience that feeling of apprehension? If I am not anxious at all, if I walk into church with an easy-going confidence, can I truly sat that I perceive that "the gods are here?" The primary icon in the Church, the Crucifix, a representation of God Himself suffering a brutal, bloody, humiliating execution, should be reminder enough that we should approach the Eucharist in some trepidation. God is the primary casualty in the spiritual war going on all around us, and in us, but we are subject to becoming casualties as well. In fact, we already are casualties, one manifestation of which is an easy-going approach to Mass. For in that insouciant attitude we reveal our disconnect from reality, our failure to perceive that the gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world. We should remember that, not only is God present in the Eucharist at Mass, but the gods may be hanging around as well; for the Eucharist is the primary weapon in our battle against sin and evil, and the gods have an interest in undermining it...

Friday, May 2, 2008

Derb and Unnatural Thought

John Derbyshire has been going after Expelled with all guns blazing. Yet in this post, even in his attacks against the anti-Darwinists, he shows how hard it is to say anything at all about evolution without saying something problematic. I would like to focus on this passage:

"The ordinary modes of human thinking are magical, religious, and social. We want our wishes to come true; we want the universe to care about us; we want the esteem of our peers. For most people, wanting to know the truth about the world is way, way down the list. Scientific objectivity is a freakish, unnatural, and unpopular mode of thought, restricted to small cliques whom the generality of citizens regard with dislike and mistrust."

If scientific objectivity is unnatural, how did it ever arise? Darwin's theory of evolution is universal and deep in scope; every aspect and fiber of our being has its origin in evolution and nothing escapes it. This includes our mind in thinking about evolution and conducting science in general. If evolution is true, then science is an evolutionary product as much as anything else. And it must be, in the end, as natural as anything else. The very act of distinguishing the natural from the unnatural, and pointing out certain acts as falling in the latter category, is an implicit rebuke to Darwinism, for Darwinism does not have the category of the unnatural.

Furthermore, if scientific objectivity is "freakish, unnatural, and unpopular" it is necessarily doomed anyway, isn't it? To be "freakish, unnatural, and unpopular" sounds a lot like being "unfit", and if there is one thing Darwinism assures us about the unfit, it is that it doesn't survive. Remember that Darwinism claims to bring all aspects of life under its purview, including all aspects of human life, and that means all its freakish, unnatural(?), and unpopular manifestations. Daniel Dennett has made a career out of insisting that people recognize the universal scope of Darwinian logic. Derbyshire goes on to say

"There is probably a sizable segment in any population that believes scientists should be rounded up and killed"

without thinking about it in the evolutionary terms he so champions. If a sizeable segment of the population desires such a thing, why don't they just do it? I'm not asking this question to make an ethical point about Darwinism but a scientific one. Isn't that what the competition for life, the struggle for survival is all about, the struggle that Darwin insists is going on all the time, all around us? If any population of organisms has the capability and desire to destroy its rivals, what in Darwinian logic would lead them to refrain from doing so? There is nothing, because the fundamental principle in Darwinism is that every organism acts to win the competition for survival. But it is just Derbyshire's point that a sizeable segment does see its interests in eliminating scientists. Again, I am not making a moral argument here, but an empirical one. The very fact that Derbyshire cites, that a lot of people desire to round up and kill scientists, and that they refrain from doing so, is a counterexample to the principle that organisms always act to win the competition for survival.

Phil Lawler's Blog

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