Wednesday, February 18, 2009

God, Prayer and Making a Difference III

The third part of this thread, the first two parts being here and here.

In this third part, I consider the proposition "The future of our society as one of honor, decency and virtue does not depend on religious faith." The more detailed version, from the Secular Right blog, is:

"We take for granted that parents will teach children manners, or assume that if they don't, schools will act as a back-stop. But what if neither the family nor schools perform the duty? I see no connection between belief in a supernatural being and public etiquette. Rather, the cultivation of manners rests on an understanding of how fragile social order is, and how it needs to be constantly buttressed by instruction and correction."

How will this cultivation of manners take place? It must be the instruction of those without manners, by those who do have manners. But why should the unmannered take instruction from the mannered? The ill-mannered are, at least in that respect, poorly educated. So the question resolves itself into the general question of why the uneducated should submit to an education by the educated. Now even the uneducated can see the value of a technical education, for the products of our empirical sciences are manifest to the ignorant, but technical education is not at issue; the question is one of the education of manners and morals, or what was once the point of education classically understood. It is only the wise, however, who understand the value of wisdom. The most serious aspect of ignorance is that it is ignorant of the evil of ignorance - which is why the Socratic breakthrough, which involved not only the knowledge of Socrates' own ignorance, but his understanding of its deep significance, was necessary to the founding of true education.

There can be only one reason why the uneducated should submit to education: faith. If they could see and understand the benefits of education, see the connection between manners and the fragility of society, to that extent they would not be ignorant. Heather MacDonald has it backwards. It is not the cultivation of manners that rests on an understanding of the fragility of the social order, but the understanding of the fragility of the social order that rests on the the cultivation of manners.

Faith is a virtue. I am not here speaking of the supernatural virtue of Faith with which we may be infused by the grace of God, but of the ordinary, mundane virtue of faith. Faith is not an intellectual conclusion, or an arbitrary act of the will, but a virtue - a quality of character that contributes to the fulfillment of our nature. Faith is necessary to education because the ignorant cannot see the value of education prior to being educated. So they must believe that education is worthwhile until the point comes that they can see that it is worthwhile. Faith, even faith bordering on or passing over to religious faith, was the keystone of classical education. When Socrates heard that the Oracle of Delphi had proclaimed him the wisest of men, he was puzzled because he knew himself to possess no wisdom. Were he a man of no faith, he would have simply dismissed the Oracle as mistaken and forgotten about it. But his faith - his belief that the Oracle would not speak falsely - led him to hold in tension the Oracle's prophecy and the knowledge of his own ignorance. He embarked on a quest to resolve the tension by finding a man wiser than himself. Of course, the result of his quest was the discovery that the supposed wise men thought they knew many things they did not, while Socrates was not subject to this vice, this being the basis for the Oracle's proclamation. The faith of Socrates was not a consequence of the self-education that occurred on his quest, but a pre-condition of it.

Aristotle typically begins his works with a review of the history of thought on the question he is addressing. This is a testimony of faith, a record of the fact that Aristotle, like Socrates, researched all the wise men he could find in the belief that they had something to teach him, before assuming the audacity to add his own novel contributions. St. Thomas Aquinas, the apex of the the tradition of classical thought, began his career in an act of faith in a vow of obedience to the Dominican Order. He spent his life absorbing everything anyone could teach him, not just from Christian teachers like Albert the Great or Duns Scotus, but also from pagans like Aristotle, Jews like Maimonides, and Moslems like Avicenna and Averroes. In expanding and correcting the tradition, he spoke as the voice of tradition, a result of his original act of faith.

The modern world, which I will arbitrarily take as beginning in the sixteenth century, self-consciously removed the central place of faith in intellectual life, and, eventually, in life in general. In fact, it has come close to making faithlessness (for which it misuses the word "skepticism") its supreme virtue. Descartes can be compared to Socrates on this score. After receiving a modest education, Descartes, as a young man, concluded it was all drivel and dismissed the intellectual tradition at a stroke, an act of breathtaking intellectual pride. Instead he searched for a principle on which he could hang his life and thought with absolute certainty; in other words, in complete independence and without a scintilla of faith. Socrates embarked on a quest for the wise man, Descartes on a quest for the indubitable first principle of philosophy that would relieve him of any need for wise men. The result, of course, was the cogito ergo sum and, more significantly, the establishment of faithlessness at the heart of philosophy.

Descartes did not succeed in constructing his philosophy of certainty, as thinkers after him were soon to point out. But instead of concluding that Descartes was mistaken in his original act of faithlessness, they joined him in it, concluding only that Descartes had not been faithless enough. Since then, the story of modern philosophy has been the story of philosophers undermining each other, with each proclaiming a newly discovered set of "first principles" that undermine all prior philosophers, with succeeding philosophers returning the favor by dismissing that philosopher as "naive." Thus Kant undermines both Descartes and Hume, Hegel undermines Kant, and Nietzsche undermines everyone. Hobbes proclaims the sure foundation of civil order in the discovery of the "state of nature", only to be told by Rousseau that he didn't really discover the state of nature - a feat that Rousseau, naturally, feels he himself accomplished. What they all have in common is the original Cartesian principle that philosophy starts in faithlessness. Albert Camus distilled the modern tradition (if a tradition that is defined as a continual undermining of itself can really be thought of as a tradition) when he proclaimed in The Myth of Sisyphus:

After so many centuries of inquiries, so many abdications among thinkers, we are well aware that this is true for all our knowledge. With the exception of the professional rationalists, today people despair of true knowledge. If the only significant history of human thought were to be written, it would have to be the history of its successive regrets and its impotences.

Camus, like Descartes, wrote this as a young man. This was how he started his career, not how he ended it. Socrates began his philosophical career by asserting his own ignorance and searching for the wise man;  the modern man asserts the ignorance of anyone who might teach him, and like Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, and the rest of the dreary train, sets out to "revolutionize" thought by reconstructing Thought from the ground up, in his own image. Finally we reach Camus who does not attempt to reconstruct Thought - having surveyed the wreckage - and simply tries to find a way to live without thought. The modern thinker prides himself on his "skepticism", but he is not at all skeptical of the one thing needful - himself. Socrates is the philosopher so desperately needed by the modern world. 

It is easy to see the effect of all this on education and the transmission of manners and civility. It has taken a long time to play out, but destructive ideas held initially by an intellectual elite eventually filter down and through society as a whole. Finally we reach the point where the average person absorbs the faithlessness that was once an intellectual vice restricted to a few intellectual "pioneers", and massive cultural damage ensues. Everyone is a Cartesian ego now, a self-subsisting intellectual principle that demands that everything submit to it on its own terms. The decrease of civility is only a symptom for which modern philosophy is the disease; the cure is a return to faith at the center of culture.

We have lost the virtue of faith that is vital to education. Why should a student put faith in a teacher, when the teacher holds faithlessness as a first principle? A student will place faith in a teacher to the extent that the teacher has faith, and for that the teacher must relate himself to a being worthy of faith; for a grown man, that can only be God. That is the connection between belief in a supernatural being and public etiquette.

"Criton, we owe a cock to Asclepios; pay it without fail."
 - the dying words of Socrates.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

God, Prayer and Making a Difference II

This is the second part of this thread.

Here I consider the proposition: If there is a God, there might as well not be as far as this world is concerned. God might make a discernible difference in the hereafter, but makes no apparent difference in this one.

The proposition is often said in the context of petitionary prayer. One man prayers for his cancer to be cured, and the cancer disappears. Another man (or, perhaps, even the same man at another time) prays for a cure to his cancer and he dies. It looks like cancer sometimes takes life and sometimes it doesn't, and God doesn't make much difference either way.

I would first like to say something about the alleged results of petitionary prayer somehow proving that God is good. No one prays to God unless he already believes that God is good. That is why I pray to God and not Lucifer. We might say that some consequence of prayer reveals the glory of God, but the idea that the goodness of God is held in suspense pending our judgement of the results of prayer is, well, impious. It's like telling my wife that I will withhold judgement concerning her goodness pending what she gives me for Christmas. 

Atheists tend to think of prayer in a magical manner. You recite the words as an incantation, and the results should automatically follow, as though prayer involves a magic power to dominate the will of God. Petitionary prayer is exactly that, petitionary, as in we petition the King on some issue. Whether the King chooses to grant our petition is entirely up to him.

Anyway, to the main point: The proposition in question has it exactly backwards. Whether God makes a difference in the hereafter is a matter of faith and, admittedly, it is hard to discern what is going on in that realm. That God makes a difference in this world is clearly manifest. If God made no difference in this world, why would atheists bother about Him? Let us be clear: God must be something rather than nothing. If God were absolutely nothing, we would not be able to talk about him. Now it may be that God is only a fantasy, or an idea, or a meme, rather than the supernatural Ground of Being, but that is still something rather than nothing. The atheist says that Allah is but a fantasy, but that doesn't change the fact that the fantastical Allah seems to be having real effects in the real world, not the fantasy world. Santa Claus may be a fantasy but pointing it out does not change the fact that presents show up on Christmas morning. 

Similarly, Jesus Christ may be just a fantasy of Christians, but this fantasy has underwritten an institutional Church that has survived persecutions, the fall of the Roman Empire, inspired Catholic Knights to toss Moslems out of Europe, spread the Gospel to every corner of the world, and produced a Pope who brought down Communism. I am inclined to think that a fantasy so powerful may be more than just a fantasy, but that is neither here nor there at the moment. The point is that it is possible to deny that God is a substantial supernatural being, but ridiculous to claim that God has no effects in this world. Again, why would atheists care about God if God had little effect in the world? 

Western civilization was inspired by Christianity for most of its two thousand year history, only recently giving up on God and trying to make it on its own. Most everyone, atheists included, admit that Western civilization is in decline, not only politically, but morally and economically as well. How will that decline be arrested? We have already seen the power of the Christian God (fantasy or not) in the extraordinary growth of European civilization from 500 A.D. to 1900 A.D. What is the secular replacement for Him?

At the Secular Right blog, John Derbyshire describes the joys and motivations of his secular philosophy that he describes as Mysterian:

Naturalism has boundless pleasures for anyone with an inquiring mind and a sense of wonder... We're content to marvel at the truths that science uncovers, hope to understand more this year than we did last year, and... perhaps even writing books about them, if we can find a publisher willing to take us on.

The natural world's enough to keep my mind fully engaged; and I find I can live decently, honorably, and contentedly without any dependence on stories about improbable historical evens - miraculous impregnations and the like.

The Derb is famous for his pessimism about the future of Western civilization, and that pessimism, combined with the attitudes above, indicates that Derbyshire is essentially an Epicurean. He would fit right in at the late end of the Roman Empire, retiring to his villa to tend his garden and lament the manner in which the Empire has gone to pot. And here is the problem with atheism: It absurdly proclaims that God has no effects in the world, and is then impotent to reproduce the effects that God has obviously had.  Heather MacDonald writes that:

As for what will get us out of the economic crisis, believers will work out for themselves, why, if God is assurance of a brighter future, he didn't do something before hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs. I'll bank on the powerful drive to trade, build enterprises, and the enjoy the fruits of human ingenuity.

Actually, God has done plenty. Two thousand years ago he suffered, died, and rose from the dead, and instituted a Church that persists to this day, a Church in which individuals may obtain the grace and learn the virtues that would underwrite a sound economy. That we do not avail ourselves of God's grace is our choice, not His. As we have turned our back on God, our government has become increasingly venal, self-serving and contemptuous of the people, and the people themselves all too willing to surrender their freedom and become slaves of the government. A free republic, as Adam Smith and our Founding Fathers understood, only works if men maintain the virtue to support a life of free men; lose the virtue, and slavery will return in some form or another, for men are natural slaves. We have seen how God supported freedom; how will atheism do it?

Heather writes that "the cultivation of manners rests on an understanding of how fragile social order is and how it needs to be constantly buttressed by instruction and correction." Well, no. More than an understanding of the problem is necessary. In addition the virtue, energy, and inspiration to effect instruction and correction is required - the kind of energy and inspiration that sent Catholic missionaries across the Atlantic to risk their lives in preaching the Gospel to the Iroquois Indians in the eighteenth century. Where is such drive and energy in atheism? It's nowhere; the atheists have retired to their dens to ponder nature and write books. Atheism is plenty real but ineffective. Allah may be a fantasy but is terribly effective. I'm betting an Allah in that contest. 

God, Prayer and Making a Difference

The Secular Right has three recent posts about which I wish to comment.  The posts are Civility and Order, New Mysterian Plants Marker, and Please Explain.

The posts can be summarized in three propositions:

1. Good things that happen do not prove God's beneficence, because bad things also sometimes happen that God could have stopped. If you are going to count one, you've got to count the other.

2. If there is a God, there might as well not be as far as this world is concerned. God might make a discernible difference in the hereafter, but makes no apparent difference in this one.

3. The future of our society as one of honor, decency and virtue does not depend on religious faith.

First, let us take the first proposition, drawn from the post Please Explain. If Bill O'Reilly thinks that the safe landing of Flight 1549 was due to miraculous intervention (I don't know that he does, I only know what the Secular Right has written), then he is simply a fool. The safe landing of Flight 1549 was obviously due to the training, experience and coolness of the crew. No miraculous intervention needed. God was not the immediate cause of the safe landing of the plane.

But God can be considered a remote cause of the safe landing of the plane (taking it for granted that God exists.) God created a world in which people like pilot Sullenberger are born, grow to be outstanding pilots through training and the development of virtues like courage, prudence and decisiveness, and so are on hand at a critical moment like the emergency on Flight 1549. So we can say it illustrates God's beneficence in the sense that God was a remote, though perhaps not an immediate, cause of the safe landing of the aircraft.

I was careful not to write that the safe landing of the plane "proves" that God is good. The conclusion that God is good comes from a consideration of being and creation as a whole, not a utilitarian toting up of atomized events, as though we conclude that God is good because N+1 good events have happened in the universe and only N bad events. This is what the secularist seems to want to do; she wants to put God on trial and serve as the prosecutor, and the religious believer as defense counsel. She calls her witnesses and we call ours. 

God created the world and saw that it was good. This means it is better that Flight 1549 and the crew and passengers existed than that they were never born. This is true whether or not pilot Sullenberger succeeded in making a safe landing. It is on the basis of the existential goodness of Creation that we proclaim that God is good. Flight 3407 ended in tragedy, but the only reason it is a tragedy is because something existentially good - the crew and passengers - perished in the crash. We lament the tragedy of Flight 3407, but does it make sense to conclude that God is not good as a result? If God is not good, then His works are not good, including Creation. It follows that existence is an evil, should be fled and, perversely, that tragedies like Flight 3407 are really good things since they release people from the horror of existence.

If that sounds like a horrible thing to say, the thought is not original with me, and pessimistic philosophies throughout history have drawn similar conclusions. The medieval Cathars, for example, held that material Creation is an evil, and therefore considered procreation a sin and suicide a moral example to be followed. Many of the modern existentialists like Sartre have found existence to be repulsive, although they can't quite bring themselves to commit suicide.

Life is good despite the evil things that befall us. I say this as a matter of natural knowledge, not faith. I can praise God for the safe landing of Flight 1549 because God is the remote cause of airplanes and courageous flight crews. What about Flight 3407? To denounce God as evil because of this tragedy is self-contradictory, because it is a tragedy only on condition that God's works (in the form of airplanes, crews and passengers) are good things and should be preserved. We live in a world that is fundamentally good but in which some evil is allowed to occur.

Why does God allow evil? I will risk the wrath of Heather MacDonald by saying this is a mystery. What is not a mystery is that the existence of evil does not constitute a refutation of the goodness of God, which was the point of the above. It should be remembered that all thoroughly thought-through philosophies - religious, atheist, or otherwise - necessarily have elements of mystery to them. If someone tells you that she has no elements of mystery in her thinking, that everything is clear as daylight, or even potentially clear as daylight, they are at best confused. Probably the most serious attempt to generate a philosophy of pure clarity was that of Descartes in his bid to ground philosophy on the indubitable truth of his own thinking - cogito ergo sum. Despite what he thought he was doing, what Descartes actually did was to turn his own mind into an impenetrable mystery, a mystery that haunts the philosophy and sciences of the mind to this day. Descartes simply transplanted the essential mystery from God to his own ego. 

Science is no way out here. Science explains mysteries by positing other mysteries. Newton, for example, explained the motions of the heavens in terms of mass, force and acceleration, three elements no one had heard of before, at least the way Newton used them. Newton never explained what exactly mass or force is, and how it is that a force can act on a mass and produce yet a third type of thing called an acceleration. What he showed convincingly is that these three mysterious elements do interact the way he said they do. Newton transferred the mystery from the solar system to his mechanical elements, and is rightly renowned as a genius for doing so. We have benefitted greatly as a result. Unfortunately, the exchange didn't work out so well in the case of Cartesian philosophy, which has made man an alien in his own world.

The point is that mystery is always the terminus of human thought, whatever it is. Condemning a philosophy because it ends up in mystery is, in the end, a refusal to think things through to their end.

I will take up the other two propositions in coming posts...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin Day and Man as Special

It's Darwin Day, and this gives me a chance to sound-off about some of the silly reasoning associated with Darwinism. One common claim, repeated to the point that it is nearly a cliche, is that Darwin supposedly de-throned man, and showed that he is "not special."

Sorry, but the fact that man is special has nothing to do with religion, or even whether or not Darwinism is true. That man is special is an obvious fact of nature. Man is the only creature on Earth who can destroy any other creature if he so chooses, or even the Earth itself if he so chooses. He is the only creature who pursues knowledge for its own sake, love for its own sake, art for its own sake, and develops theories of origins like Darwinism over which he argues. Man is the only creature who self-consciously transcends his environment, not only physically in his trips to the Moon, but intellectually as well. Alone among creatures, he wonders about his place in nature. The argument between Darwinists and creationists is not how peculiar man is, but how this peculiar creature called man came about.

One of the reasons put forward for the fact that man is "not special" is that Darwin showed that species are not discrete, but blend into each other over time. I say: So what? The chain of being remains nonetheless. We may discover that the chain holding the bell in a tower is actually a rope, and so is continuous rather than discrete. But the rope still has a top and a bottom, a beginning and an end. We can still distinguish two feet from the top of the rope from two feet from the bottom of the rope, just as we could various places on the chain. Really, the difference between the Darwinists and the traditional view is that the Darwinists claim the chain has many more links, to the point that it becomes continuous (as in calculus), and that the higher links arose from the lower. All that is besides the point regarding the nature of the chain, or rope if you like, as we immediately encounter it. Saying that Darwinian gradualism proves that we cannot draw a metaphysical distinction between man and lower animals, is like saying that we can't draw a metaphysical distinction between noon and midnight because of analog clocks.

I will be scolded by the more metaphysically hardcore Darwinists for using terms like "higher" and "lower." Darwin, you see, showed that life is just a blind, materialist game of survival, and man is not "better" or "worse", "higher" or "lower", or "more important" than any other creature. But Darwinism does give a scale of values; its whole point is that life is a game of survival, as in "survival of the fittest." Games by their nature have winners and losers, unless they are held in post-modern elementary schools, and I am confident the Darwinists will approve of my saying that Darwinism is anything but post-modern. And there is no doubt that man has won this game, to the point every other creature only survives at his whim. The lack of a sense of irony in Darwinists is demonstrated by enviro-Darwinists, who say we shouldn't wipe out other species because Darwin showed we are just another animal, no better or worse than others. The very fact that we can decide whether or not to wipe out other species proves that we are not just another animal. It's the king who decides whether or not someone will be executed.

The more Darwinists insist that the distinction between men and animals is trivial, the more trivial they make Darwinism. The genius of Darwin was supposed to be that he explained how the glorious diversity of life on Earth, with its intricate designs, strange symbiotic relationships, and astounding range of beings, from the simple amoeba to the staggeringly complex and scientific man, the species that includes geniuses like Darwin himself, all resulted from the simple combination of chance and natural selection. My point here is not to argue with that conclusion; it is to point out that, the more we denigrate the powers of man compared to the lower organisms, the less impressive becomes Darwinism. If conducting science is but a trivial improvement on apes probing anthills with sticks, then the process that changed the ant-hunting ape into the Darwinist scientist is of trivial significance.

And the real target of the man-isn't-special Darwinists isn't the ancient conception of man, but the early modern conception of man, despite what Darwinists think. The ancient conception of organic life was based on the three-way division of the soul into vegetative, locomotive and intellectual aspects. All living things had a soul, plants relatively poverty-stricken with only a vegetative soul, animals a little richer with a locomotive as well as a vegetative soul, and man fully loaded with a vegetative, locomotive and intellectual soul. Our soul is the same soul as plants and animals but with an intellectual aspect as well. The difference, then, between Darwinists and Thomas Aquinas is that St. Thomas thinks the soul of man recapitulates the hierarchy of organic life in its being, whereas the Darwinist thinks the soul of man recapitulates the hierarchy of organic life in time (as the current temporal culmination of an historical process.) So both St. Thomas and Darwinists see a continuity between man and the rest of organic life, although they differ profoundly (of course) concerning the nature of that continuity.

The early moderns, mesmerized by the new advances in science (especially physics), leapt to the conclusion that animals are really organic machines, most famously stated in the philosophy of Descartes. But a machine doesn't know anything, a fact that the early moderns didn't forget even if many philosophers forget it today, so Descartes supposed a radical division in the nature of man between the material, mechanical body and an immaterial knowing substance - the soul. The Cartesian soul is essentially the ancient soul stripped of its vegetative and locomotive natures, a pure knowing substance absurdly attached to a body, marking a radical break in being between man and the rest of nature, and turning man into a monster wandering in an alien world of natural creatures. Of course man so conceived is "special" only in the unfortunate sense that Frankenstein's monster was special, and the Darwinists are to be applauded for finally chasing this conception of man into a windmill and burning him alive.

But the Thomistic soul did not perish in the windmill, because it was never a monster that drew the ire of a mob of pitchfork wielding villagers. Thomistic man is special for the same reason Darwinian man is - he is the culmination of nature.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Kant, Math and Perennial Questions of Philosophy

Philosophy addresses questions that flow from the fundamental human condition, and so are relevant to all times and places. These are the questions that lie behind all other questions; a great philosopher is one who identifies and addresses these fundamental questions. The great philosopher is validated in his intuitions by the fact that, over time, men keep returning to the very same questions originally asked by the great philosopher. 

An example of this is found in the Ideas section of this Sunday's Boston Globe. The article starts this way:

Mario Livio is an astrophysicist, a man whose work and worldview are inextricably intertwined with mathematics. Like most scientists, he depends on math and an underlying faith in its incredible power to explain the universe. But over the years, he has been nagged by a bewildering thought. Scientific progress, in everything from economics to neurobiology to physics, depends on math's ability. But what is math? Why should its abstract concepts be so uncannily good at explaining reality?

The question may seem irrelevant. As long as math works, why not just go with it? But Livio felt himself pulled into a deep question that reaches into the very foundation of science - and of reality itself. The language of the universe appears to be mathematics: Formulas describe how our planet revolves around the sun, how a boat floats, how light glints off the water. But is mathematics a human tool, or is reality, in some fundamental way, mathematics?

What's funny about the contemporary world is that, after dismissing philosophy as an anachronistic waste of time, when we finally discover truly philosophical questions, we believe in all innocence that we are the first to ask them. Then we breathlessly announce our bold quest to answer these novel questions, in which we think we are blazing a new trail of human knowledge, but in reality are only retracing the footsteps of the philosophers of old, usually doing a much poorer job than they did. Here is Immanuel Kant writing in the eighteenth century in his Critique of Pure Reason:

In the solution of the above problem there is at the same time contained the possibility of the pure use of reason in the grounding and execution of all sciences that contain a theoretical a priori cognition of objects, i.e., the answer to the questions:

How is pure mathematics possible?
How is pure natural science possible?

About these sciences, since they are actually given, it can appropriately be asked how they are possible; for that they must be possible is proved through their actuality.

The Globe interview goes on to say the following:

Livio, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, concludes that math has to be thought of, at least in part, as a human invention. That's a profoundly weird notion in a world where math has always had a special status, untainted by people's opinions and biases. Religion, politics, and picking a great work of art can all incite vigorous debate, while 2+2=4 has always seemed like a cold, hard fact. Math isn't a figment of our imagination, but perhaps it isn't quite as far from great art as we thought.

It's only a "profoundly weird notion", or a novel notion, for someone who has never read Kant. Kant proposed that math is a human invention insofar as it reflects the structural nature of human cognition. "Time" and "Space" are the forms under which man experiences reality according to his nature; geometry has the certainty it does because its conclusions are a necessary consequence of the nature of man.  Now we may agree or disagree with Kant, but there is nothing new in these ideas.

It follows, of course, that other intelligent creatures who do not share the cognitive apparatus of man may not develop math and science the way we do. Our "time" and "space" may mean nothing to them, let alone the geometry and physics we develop from them. Kant made these points in his Critique. Livio uses the example of a jellyfish. Would jellyfish develop the natural numbers - 1,2,3,4, etc. - when perhaps their entire experience is purely analog, e.g. the pressure temperature, and motion of water? Maybe not, but again, this is not a new point, only an old point - stated clearly and profoundly by Kant - presented as new.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Evolution and the Myth of the Machine

Jerry Coyne starts chapter one of Why Evolution is True this way:

If anything is true about nature, it is that plants and animals seem intricately and almost perfectly designed for living their lives. Squids and flatfish change color and pattern to blend in with their surroundings, becoming invisible to predator and prey. Bats have radar to home in on insects at night. Hummingbirds, which can hover in place and change position in an instant, are far more agile than any human helicopters, and have long tongues to sip nectar lying deep within flowers. And the flowers they visit also appear designed - to use hummingbirds as sex aids. For while the hummingbird is busy sipping nectar, the flower attaches pollen to its bill, enabling it to fertilize the next flower that the bird visits. Nature resembles a well-oiled machine, with every species an intricate cog or gear.

Coyne then expresses the obvious, but (for the Darwinist) mistaken conclusion that all this implies a designer:

What does all this imply? A master mechanic, of course. This conclusion was most famously expressed by the eighteenth-century English philosopher William Paley. If we came across a watch lying on the ground, he said, we would certainly recognize it as the work of a watchmaker. Likewise, the existence of well-adapted organisms and their intricate features surely implied a conscious, celestial designer - God.

I will mention in passing that Coyne, like all Darwinists, admits that there is a reasonable, even strong, prima facie case for intelligent design, a case that has nothing to do with authoritative religious texts. In fact, their case for the genius of Darwin was that he showed that the common-sense conclusion of intelligent design was empirically false. Why, then, do folks like Coyne strenuously insist that intelligent design is a "discredited, religiously based theory", one only a fool or fraud could put any credence in compared to evolution, "a theory so obviously true", as Coyne does in his introduction? He compares the introduction of creationism in the classroom with introducing shamanism in medical schools or astrology in psychology classes. But there is no common-sense case for shamanism or astrology like there is for intelligent design - a case Coyne himself presents in his book! The intelligent design movement is simply an extension of the common sense arguments Darwinists admit are true; the appearance of design is true "if anything about nature is true." Of course, the common sense case may be wrong, but Coyne doesn't even want it presented in the classroom, under the penalty of law.

But that is beside the point I really wish to address, which is the manner in which our thinking about nature - including both Darwinists and their modern opponents like Paley - has become dominated by what Lewis Mumford called the "myth of the machine." We see it in Coyne's expression that "nature resembles a well-oiled machine, with every species an intricate cog or gear." This gets it backwards. Machines resemble nature, nature doesn't resemble a machine. There is much more to nature than is captured in the metaphor of a machine, and the insidious result of taking the machine prior to nature is to eliminate from view all those aspects of nature that cannot be fit into the ideology of the machine.

Machines are artifacts made by man to serve his purposes. Therefore the primary quality of a machine is efficiency: How powerfully and cheaply does the machine achieve the end for which it was made? Reading the myth of the machine into nature means turning efficiency into a metaphysical fundamental. But nature is an end in itself; the nature of nature is to be, not to be-for-something-else like a machine. Organisms are about more than efficiency; they are about being what they are.

The classical Christian view of God is that God is an artist, not that God is a mechanic. An artist creates things that are ends-in-themselves and for which efficiency is at most a secondary concern. When God is seen as a mechanic, as implied in Paley's argument from mechanical design, then power and efficiency are seen as the fundamental forces in nature and therefore constitute the measure of nature. Something like Darwinism will ultimately follow as a philosophical consequence (although mistaken for an empirical one), since Darwinism is simply the observation that some organisms are more efficient than others, which is undoubtedly true, allied to the philosophical principle that efficiency is the metaphysical fundamental of nature. As Darwin puts in in the Origin of Species:

In looking at Nature, it is most necessary to keep the foregoing considerations always in mind  - never to forget that every single organic being may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers; that each lives by a struggle at some period in its life; that heavy destruction inevitably falls either on the young or the old, during each generation or at recurrent intervals. Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little, and the number of the species will almost simultaneously increase to any amount. (italics mine)

As the philosopher David Stove pointed out, the passage is manifestly false as a matter of empirics; the checks on the population of man, for example, have largely disappeared yet population growth is declining and, in some places like Europe and Russia, population is decreasing despite abundant food. So man is a counterexample to the assertion that every organism is striving to the utmost to increase in numbers. I would like to focus on Darwin's assertion that it is "most necessary" to keep the "struggle for existence" foremost in mind when thinking about nature. If reproductive efficiency were really the be-all and end-all of nature, then why is it necessary to keep reminding ourselves of the fact? The fact should become manifest as a matter of course. Of course, what Darwin is really insisting on is not to keep reminding ourselves of obvious empirical truths, but to read nature through the lens of the principle of efficiency in reproduction.

If we are not spellbound by the myth of the machine, then we may ask just what it means that, as Coyne says, "plants and animals seem intricately and almost perfectly designed for living their lives." In what way do plants and animals fail the test of perfection? A bear lives the life of a bear, and it seems to lead that life perfectly... bears do not sometimes fail to live like bears and instead live like birds. Now grizzly bears fish in streams, and no doubt they could do it more efficiently, and so we could say bears fail in that sense the test of perfection - if we take it for granted that the measure of a bear's life is efficiency. Does a bear become more "bearlike" the more efficiently it fishes? Maybe a perfect bear is a bear that fishes exactly as efficiently as actual bears do... the life of a bear is not about doing what it does with ever more power and violence, as though bears are waiting to discover dynamite so they can blow salmon out of streams. 

One of the standard Darwinist arguments against creation is that nature is "flawed" or contains examples of "bad design", and therefore no intelligent designer could be responsible for it. Although Darwinists typically deny any reality outside nature, the argument is in danger of presupposing it, for it supposes a standard beyond nature (a standard of "perfection") against which nature can be measured and found wanting. If we are not to repair to a standard outside nature, then the standard can only be that of efficiency, for efficiency only demands that nature do what it is already doing, only faster and with more power. Really it reads the ideology of the machine into nature, for machines can always be bigger, faster, and more efficient. Unlike a painting, an opera, a piece of furniture, or an organism, a machine always fails the standard of perfection of its own nature because it is always possible, in principle at least, for there to be a better machine that does what it does faster and more cheaply. There is no inherent limit to the speed of computers, some speed at which we say "the best computers run at one million millon gigahertz and no faster." But a symphony does not always become better by being played faster or more loudly, and why must a bear be viewed under the metaphor of a machine rather than a symphony? Why must the "increase in numbers" be taken as the first principle of nature?

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Stimulus Drug

"Money has proved the most dangerous of modern man's hallucinogens."

I just read this in Lewis Mumford's The Myth of the Machine, and it seems particularly apt with respect to the ever-increasing fiscal lunacy of the Federal Government.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Story of Evolution

What fascinates me about evolution is not so much the science of it, but the philosophy. The science seems pretty straightforward and, well, boring. Organisms undergo random modifications, some of which are passed on with greater probability to descendants than others, and so become a more or less permanent part of the genetic heritage. These modifications accumulate to the point that, many generations on, the descendants bear only little resemblance to their ancestors.

So far, so boring. It sounds like geology. A river flowed over the same patch of ground for millions of years, gradually wearing down the rock underneath it, creating the Grand Canyon. Great.

It's when evolution turns from a dry account to a story that my interest perks up, as in a quote from Michael Shermer at the beginning of the Introduction to Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True:

Darwin matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

Now we are talking! I've always been a sucker for history, especially "epic sagas" with deep meaning - like the Civil War or the New Testament, for instance. But here is where the philosophy comes in. Freedom is essential to a story. A story is the account of the decisions of a free agent as he grapples with the demands of existence. A story must be told because there is no a priori way to predict the actions of a free agent with assurance; it is only in the act itself that the decision reveals itself. Will Rick assist Victor Laszlo in escaping from Casablanca, or turn him in to the Germans? Will MacBeth murder his way to the throne of Scotland? Will Gen. Richard Ewell hesitate at the end of the first day and cost the Confederates victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, and miss perhaps the best Confederate chance to win the war? If decisions follow of necessity from first principles, then there is no story, only logic and empirical necessity. When water flows over rock it wears it down; this is what happened over a long, long time and made the Grand Canyon. And if Rick must of necessity turn Laszlo into the Germans, there is no Casablanca.

Chance and contingency are no substitutes for freedom. If an earthquake occurs and diverts the Colorado River two miles west, this changes the location of the Grand Canyon but we still don't have a story, let alone an epic saga. Neither is Casablanca a story if the events are entirely driven by chance and contingency; say, if all that matters to Laszlo's safety is whether it happens to rain on the day he leaves.

Evolution, its proponents insist, is a scientific theory like any other, as for example geology and astronomy. There can't really be any epic sagas in evolution, then, anymore than there are in geology, because there is no more freedom in evolution than there is in geology. What is Shermer talking about, then, in the words I just quoted? There is a studied ambiguity in Shermer's words. He writes that Darwin and evolution matter because science matters, and science matters because it is the "preeminent story of our age." Now there is a story of science, insofar as there is a history of scientific endeavor. Galileo spying the moons of Jupiter or Darwin's journey on the Beagle or Freidrich Kekule discovering the structure of benzene in a dream; these are events full of freedom, drama and danger. And the history of science does have much to tell us about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. We are a creature who not only lives in an environment, but a creature who can investigate, understand, dominate and transcend his environment.

But I get the sense that this isn't really what Shermer is talking about. It's not the history of scientific endeavor, but the science itself, specifically the science of evolution, that tells us who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. Evolution, then, can't be just another science like geology. As the "preeminent story of our age", it must be the story of stories, or the science of sciences. Geology may reveal the nature and history of rocks, but evolution reveals the nature and history of man, the creator and conductor of the science of geology. Man is also the creator of evolutionary science, so evolution has the further peculiarity that it is a science of itself. Darwinists speak of the evolution of religious belief, but there must also be an evolution of evolutionary belief, as there is an evolution of everything else.

This raises several puzzling questions about evolution. Every story has a storyteller, and so must evolution, the preeminent story of our age. Just who is telling the story, and how is it he is able to tell it? The second question is: Who are the characters in the story, the ones whose freedom makes the story a story?

In his first chapter, Jerry Coyne summarizes evolution in the following sentence:

Life on earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species - perhaps a self-replicating molecule - that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it then branched out over time, throwing off many new and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection. (p. 3)

I will only note in passing that Coyne uses the word itself ("evolved") in its own definition. Coyne elaborates by saying that evolution consists of six components:

When you break that statement down, you find that it really consists of six components: evolution, gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and nonselective mechanisms of evolutionary change.

Conspicuously absent from either the original statement or the elaboration is any notion of freedom. This is as it should be so far as science is concerned: The elements of a scientific theory are thoroughly determined by that theory, as mass, force and acceleration are determined in the science of mechanics. But a storyteller requires distance from a story in order to tell it, as the story of The Princess Bride is told by Peter Falk to a little boy in the film of that name, or Philip Marlowe tells the story of The Big Sleep in retrospect. We immediately see the humor when Woody Allen plays on this truth by having his character in Annie Hall "break the frame" and speak directly to the audience, exercising a freedom he cannot possibly have as a character in the story.

Well, we are all part of the story of evolution, are we not? If we are in the story, how can we tell the story? The very fact that we can tell the story seems to be proof that the theory of evolution cannot be the entire truth about the nature of man. There must be some further truth - a truth that permits man to know evolution for what it is (and to possibly inflate it with a grandiosity it can't possibly have.)

And who are the characters in the story? The airplane that carries Laszlo away from Casablanca, the gun with which Rick shoots Major Strasser, the knife MacBeth uses as an instrument of murder, are all props. Props are things with no freedom used in a story by things that have freedom; that is, people. But if people ultimately do not have freedom - and evolution, by its nature, has no place for freedom - then they must be props. For whom are they props? This leads to the search for the true characters of the story of evolution. Originally, the characters of evolutionary history were species, as in the "origin of species." Individual organisms - this amoeba, that squirrel, you, me - are props for the species of which we are representatives. The story of evolution is the story of species struggling to succeed in the survival of the fittest. This worked because the mechanism of mutation, until recently, was unknown and therefore mysterious. Freedom is the essential mystery and will find it's philosophical place in the locus of mystery, wherever that locus is according to a particular philosophy (and every philosophy will have it, explicitly or implicitly.) Since mutation was mysterious, freedom found its implicit home in it, and a mythology of the "survival of the fittest" with its "arms races" was born. 

With the advance of genetic science, the mystery of organismic change was dispelled and species lost their ability to serve as characters in the evolutionary story. Now it is genes, as in Richard Dawkins's "selfish genes", that are offered as the true characters of evolutionary history. People are merely carriers - props - of genes, and species are merely the outward manifestation - the costume - worn by genes. Instead of the mythology of the survival of the fittest between species, we get the mythology of clever, ruthless genes manipulating biological forms for their own ends. Some day, and perhaps this day has already come - I don't know - the details of genetic mutations will themselves become known and lose their mystery, and genes will be dethroned as the characters of evolutionary history. A new protagonist, the "ruthless cosmic ray", perhaps, will kick genes off the stage, the same way genes kicked species off the stage.

Of course cosmic rays, genes or species can't ultimately be any more free than people are, because there is no freedom in evolutionary theory. This is the philosophical dilemma of Darwinism. The ultimate dream of evolutionary theory is to explain man - "who we are, where we came from, and where we are going." Now man is manifestly a free being. The key to explaining him will not be like the key to explaining the solar system, which was Kepler's breakthrough that the planets travel in ellipses rather than circles. Such a "closed-form" answer works for planets because planets are not free. The key to the nature of a free being like man will be getting his story right, because we know free beings through stories. So Darwinists are forced to tell a story, but since their philosophy has no place for freedom, it also has no place for the free characters essential to a story, and so Darwinism becomes the never-ending hunt for the true protagonists of evolution.