Thursday, February 23, 2006

Another Debunker Debunked

The New York Times Sunday Book Review featured Leon Wieseltier's superb review of Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. The basic thrust of Dennett's book (using science to debunk religious belief) sounds like the Bloom Atlantic Monthly piece we discussed last week.

Here are some of key paragraphs from Wieseltier's review ("The God Genome"):

It will be plain that Dennett's approach to religion is contrived to evade religion's substance. He thinks that an inquiry into belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief. This is a very revealing mistake. You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason. In this profound sense, Dennett does not believe in reason. He will be outraged to hear this, since he regards himself as a giant of rationalism. But the reason he imputes to the human creatures depicted in his book is merely a creaturely reason. Dennett's natural history does not deny reason, it animalizes reason. It portrays reason in service to natural selection, and as a product of natural selection. But if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection? The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else. (In this respect, rationalism is closer to mysticism than it is to materialism.) Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.

Like many biological reductionists, Dennett is sure that he is not a biological reductionist....

Then suddenly there is this: "But it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science." As the ancient rabbis used to say, have your ears heard what your mouth has spoken? Dennett does not see that he has taken his humanism back. Why is our independence from biology a fact of biology? And if it is a fact of biology, then we are not independent of biology. If our creeds are an expression of our animality, if they require an explanation from natural science, then we have not transcended our genetic imperatives. The human difference, in Dennett's telling, is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind — a doctrine that may quite plausibly be called biological reductionism.


Dennett is unable to imagine a fact about us that is not a biological fact. His book is riddled with translations of emotions and ideas into evo-psychobabble.

In other words, using evolution to debunk religion ends up debunking reason, including the scientific reason used to justify evolution (like Justin L. Barrett's Atlantic letter). I really appreciate the line "As the ancient rabbis used to say, have your ears heard what your mouth has spoken?"—it so colorfully captures the gaping wound in so much modern thought: these thinkers never apply their own standards to themselves. Their philosophical thoughts are incompatible with being thought true—Kant is one major violator. (Stanley Jaki's Means to Message is a genius elaboration of this theme that cannot be paralleled, so I won't go into it here.)

The Left is squawking (squarking?) about ad hominems (with which they are certainly familiar!) and calling for an email campaign against the Times. Here's a doozie of a quotation from Brian Leiter's review of the review (as quoted at 3quarksdaily):

But "the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical" is not a "superstition," but a reasonable methodological posture to adopt based on the actual evidence, that is, based on the actual, expanding success of the sciences, and especially, the special sciences, during the last hundred years.

But I can't help but ask: is the methodological posture based on the evidence, or is the evidence based on the methodological posture? Unless there are some unspoken assumptions1, this is a very convenient bit of circular logic. It is truly amazing that these "brights"—supposedly educated, reasonable people—fail to see the faults in this logic and even uphold it as exemplary. It would seem they even lack the categories to comprehend the faults!

Sure science can explain everything—everything that it can explain.2 The "brights" would have us believe that what science fails to explain (or cannot even comprehend) isn't real. (Notably the unreality of the extra-scientific would mean the assumptions undergirding science aren't real....)

No one is arguing scientific methology isn't fruitful for understanding the world. No one is arguing that science isn't necessary for understanding the world. But being fruitful doesn't make scientific explanations the last word.

And speaking of successes of science "during the last hundred years": how about "scientific" breeding and "scientific" economics, also known as German National Socialism's final solution, and Marxist Communism's world-wide revolution. Those were wonderful fruits of science freed from any overarching metaphysical or moral system.3 The Nazis were first-rate in the sadism of their methods, but the Communists drown them with sheer numbers. The tens of millions slaughtered by these secular "scientific" ideologies dwarf any atrocities secularists can trot out to embarrass theists.

Bereft of counter-argument, the Left fumes impotently against free speech. For my part I have to say the Times deserves credit for publishing the review. It certainly cuts against the grain of their historical apologetics for Communism. Certainly it doesn't take an extraordinarily penetrating intellect (only some common sense) to see the problem with Dennett's book, but perhaps we have reason to hope the Times will continue such sanity.


1. These assumptions are so deeply rooted in our culture that we take them for granted. Obliviousness to these assumptions is what allows the brights to chop down the tree they are sitting in.

2. More on science's manifest blindness to nature in a future post.

3. The point is not that science is bad, but that so many things sold as "scientific" are not simply bad, but categorically evil. Any label can be abused, religious as well as rationalistic. What fools we mortals be!

Leon Wieseltier "The God Genome" New York Times (February 19, 2006). [free registration required]

Stanley L. Jaki, Means to Message: A Treatise on Truth (Eerdmans, 1999).

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Anniversary and Explanation

Today is the first anniversary of this weblog. (Huzzah!)

I suppose this is as good a time as any for some awkward business. It has taken me the better part of this year to realize that the name Meta-jester hinders communication of the blog's spirit. This isn't a humor site, after all.

But even more this past, very expensive year of life has bought me a new level of maturity and seriousness. In youth it is much easier to value ironic detachment, but as we get older, we come to realize the gravity of words.

That in short is why I thought it necessary to change my "handle."

The new name isn't completely serious either, but at least the first impression is serious (or at least ambiguous)... something in the tradition of Samuel Clemens's "Mark Twain."

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Debunker Debunked

In the March Atlantic Monthly, a great letter by Justin L. Barrett of the Institute for Cognition and Culture in Belfast responds to a rather silly piece the publication ran back in December. (Unfortunately access to full text of these resources requires a subscription.)

The original article, "Is God an Accident?", by professor of psychology and linguistics at Yale, Paul Bloom, is a Darwinian up-dating of Freud's claim that religion is not true, but a psychologically determined behavior.1 In this case the author claims that religion is adaptive, that is, that it helps its adherents to survive the evolutionary struggle better than non-adherents. Unfortunately for the argument, the "debunking" of religion also debunks every other human belief, as Dr. Barrett argues, including the science on which the debunking is based (emphasis added):

To use science to attack religion in this way is misguided and ultimately undermines our confidence in science even more than our confidence in religion. If religious belief is only a byproduct of our naturally selected minds having produced no direct fitness benefits in our evolutionary past, so too are a host of scientific beliefs, including the belief in natural selection itself. This observation leads to an uncomfortable problem for the anti-theist. If our brains (and the thoughts they generate) have arisen only because of their ability to produce survival-related behaviors and not Truth, how can we trust them to tell us the truth about such matters as, say, natural selection? The anti-theist must construct an argument to justify trusting his or her own mind, which could be in the midst of producing “accidental” thoughts and beliefs while constructing the argument! Such an argument, too, must consider the huge psychological literature detailing how human minds systematically get things wrong—from visual perception to higher-order reasoning—apparently to assist in our survival.

Even embracing an evolutionary account of religion, the theist may skate through this epistemological train wreck by insisting that a deity has orchestrated evolution to produce minds that can be trusted to produce true beliefs (at least under certain conditions). Perhaps the deity fine-tuned the nature of the universe from its origin so that our minds—capable of truly knowing the deity—would be inevitable. Or perhaps the deity directed just the right “random” mutations that natural selection then chose, which eventually produced our minds so that they could know Truth.

The point is that the theist may choose to believe in a deity and evolutionary or cognitive scientific accounts of religion without a conflict. The anti-theist’s determination to undercut religious belief via evolution may force abandonment of science itself. If, as Bloom suggests, religion and science will always clash, the blame lies not on the theist but on the anti-theist.

Well, that about cuts the heart out of Bloom's argument.

An extended critique is redundant, but I do have to comment on one additional thing that irked me about the article: Bloom's claim that humans are naturally dualists (i.e., believe that our bodies and souls have independent existences). He invokes a series of examples to support this claim—but all of them are from the modern, post-Cartesian era (as if that were the extent of human history!). Of course he doesn't refer to biblical times in this section, because that would completely undermine his argument.

Despite these shortcomings I do not count Bloom's article a waste of glossy paper. He's sophisticated enough to open with an extended review of recent data showing the commonality of religion in the world. For example, Bloom observes that scientists are only slightly less religious than other folks:

About 40 percent of scientists said yes to a belief in this kind of [personal, biblical] God—about the same percentage found in a similar poll in 1916. Only when we look at the most elite scientists—members of the National Academy of Sciences—do we find a strong majority of atheists and agnostics.

If the silly secularist bulk of the article sweetens it enough to coax liberals out of their mirrored rooms long enough to consider the rest of the world's point of view, then the article certainly has some worth.2


1. Paul Vitz turns Freud's argument on its head (pile-driver?) in his Faith of the Fatherless.

2. The great thing about The Atlantic is that it always tries to position itself in the middle, which allows for an interchange of ideas between disparate political factions. Plus, since only the dead (many are active Democratic voters) have any reasonable excuse for missing the country's turn away from the left, the publication currently serves the function of reconciling liberals to reality. Take for example, "Letting Go of Roe."

Paul Bloom, "Is God an Accident?", The Atlantic Monthly (December 2005).

Justin L. Barrett, letter to the editor, The Atlantic Monthly (March 2006), 18.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Strange Loyalty of Catholics

In a previous post I promised to probe the incomprehensible loyalty of Catholics to a Church pastured by (let us say) less than exemplary shepherds, whose sins include not only the infamies highlighted by the media1, but also abandonment of their flocks to wolves.

Thus was it ever so. Over four hundred years ago from his rough stone prison in the Tower of London, St. Thomas More wrote an extended mediation on The Sadness of Christ in the garden of Gethsemani. He reflects that Judas, plotting evil, is wide awake, while the other apostles, who should be doing good, sleep.

Does not this contrast between the traitor and the apostles present to us a clear and sharp mirror image (as it were), a sad and terrible view of what has happened through the ages from those times even to our own? Why do not bishops contemplate in this scene their own somnolence? Since they have succeeded in the place of the apostles, would that they would reproduce their virtues just as eagerly as they embrace their authority and as faithfully as they display their sloth and sleepiness! For very many are sleepy and apathetic in sowing virtues among the people and maintaining truth, while the enemies of Christ, in order to sow vices and uproot faith (that is, insofar as they can, to seize Christ and cruelly crucify Him once again), are wide awake—so much wiser (as Christ says) are the sons of darkness in their generation that the sons of light.

But although this comparison of the sleeping apostles applies very well to those bishops who sleep while virtue and the faith are placed in jeopardy, still it does not apply to all such prelates on all points. For some of them—alas, far more than I could wish—do not drift into sleep through sadness and grief as the apostles did. Rather they are numbered and buried in destructive desires; that is, drunk with the new wine of the devil, the flesh, and the world, they sleep like pigs sprawling in the mire.

These words are all the more poignant when one recalls that More was imprisoned and eventually gave his life for his loyalty to the Church, a loyalty that the hierarchy of England failed to live up to. Why then would More die for an institution led by such corrupt people?

To a non-Catholic correspondent Flannery O'Connor incisively explains the Catholic perspective at the base of this bewildering behavior:

All your dissatisfaction with the Church seems to me to come from an incomplete understanding of sin. This will perhaps surprise you because you are very conscious of the sins of Catholics; however what you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now, that the Holy Ghost be translated at once into all flesh. The Holy Spirit very rarely shows himself on the surface of anything. You are asking that man return at once to the state God created him in, you are leaving out the terrible, radical human pride that causes death. Christ was crucified on earth and the Church is crucified in time, and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly because she is a Church of sinners. Christ never said that the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way, but that it would not teach error. This does not mean that each and every priest won’t teach error but that the whole Church speaking through the Pope will not teach errors in matters of faith. The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on water. All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. Priests resist it as well as others. To have the Church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs, whereas it is our dignity that we are allowed more or less to get on with those grace that come through faith and the sacraments and which work through our human nature. God has chosen to operate in this manner. We can’t understand this but we can’t reject it without rejecting life.

It is not loyalty to the man, but to the office he holds (cf. Mt 23:2–3). Even a great anti-Catholic like J.A. Froude2 can only admit the historical reality of the uncanny permanence of the office:

A Catholic bishop holds his office by a tenure untouched by the accidents of time. Dynasties may change—nations may lose their liberties—the firm fabric of society may be swept away in the torrent of revolution—the Catholic prelate remains at his post; when he dies another takes his place; and when the waters sink again into their beds, the quiet figure is seen standing where it stood before—the person perhaps changed, the thing itself rooted like a rock on the adamantine basements of the world.

God's grace works despite our failings. In the Catholic view, not the man, but the office is guaranteed by a Power beyond mortal arms: “The gates of hell will not prevail against” the Church, Jesus said (Mt 16:18). Likewise he promised: “Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” (Mt 28:20)

The bishop's relationship to the faithful is a reflection of Christ's spousal relationship to the Church. Just as a wife can have no other husband, Catholics can have no leaders outside the line of bishops descended from the Apostles, the line established by Jesus. Abuses and omissions may grow to rival the Aegean stables, but like the prophet Hosea, the faithful reject any disloyalty to the wayward spouse, which is loyalty to God's will.


1. The media paper over the fact that the victims of sexual abuse were almost uniformly teenage males. The abuse scandal would have been impossible without the hierarchy's drift (in their personal behavior) into relativism and moral laxity in the latter part of the 20th century. Were the media to confront the underlying causes of the scandal, they would also have to confront their own complicity in propagating the worldview that licensed it. Nevertheless we should be thankful the media, in spite of itself, is acting as God's instrument of purification.

2. Fr. Jaki notes, “This monumental work, which established Froude as one of the foremost English prosewriters, greatly strengthened intellectual biases against the Catholic Church. Hence the special value of Froude’s admission."

Thomas More, The Sadness of Christ, trans. Clarence Miller (Princeton, NJ: Scepter, 1993), 46.

Flannery O’Connor, Letter to Cecil Dawkins, 9 December 1958 in The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979), 307.

J.A. Froude, The History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1856–1870), vol. VII, p. 174, as quoted in S.L. Jaki, Galileo Lessons (Pinckney, Michigan: Real View Books, 2001), 19.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Aristotle's Atoms

The conventional wisdom in science is that the modern atomic theory, first formulated by John Dalton in the 19th century, comes from the tradition of ancient philosophical atomists like Democritus and Epicurus. Countless textbooks repeat this as a truism and blame the influence of Aristotle's philosophy for suppressing atomism, and with it scientific knowledge and human progress.1

But the story is vastly oversimplified.

For one thing, modern atomic theory rejects many central ideas of ancient atomism. For another, Aristotle himself believed there were indivisible parts of matter, termed minima.2 Medieval commentators developed the idea within Aristotle's system and important features of their thought found their way into modern atomic theory.

As one history of the concept "atom" puts it,

Dalton conceived the union of the atoms in the compound as a simple juxtaposition. The atoms lie against each other without undergoing any internal change. In this point the founder of the chemical atomic theory did not differ from the philosophic atomists, but simply continued as something quite natural the tradition of the preceding centuries. There is, however, a remarkable point of difference from the ancient philosophical atomism. Dalton's atoms are specifically different for every kind of substance. Even this is nothing new, for the prevailing medieval theory of smallest particles, the minima theory, knew minima of a specific nature, and it was in the circles of its supporters that the first efforts were made towards the more scientifically oriented corpuscular theories of the seventeenth century. The idea of specifically different smallest particles was already so firmly established that the official supporters of Democritus and Epicurus in the seventeenth century had made room for it in their atomic theory.3

The history of the atom, like many of the stories we scientists tell ourselves, is not so much true as a useful abstraction. The problem comes when the usefulness serves not to open us to reality, but to provide an anodyne against "details" that don't quite fit the way we like to see things.

More historical myth busting here: Flat Earth Flat Wrong in which we see that the big lie is not so much the idea of a flat earth, but the idea that anyone believed in a flat earth.


1. E.g., Silberberg, Chemistry, 4e (McGraw-Hill), p. 39. Of course for secularists Aristotle is a convenient whipping-boy for Medieval Christianity.

2. E.g., Physics I, 4, 187b 28-34. See Van Melsen, p. 42.

3. Van Melsen, p. 139.

Andrew G. Van Melsen, From Atomos to Atom: The History of the Concept ATOM, trans. Henry J. Koren, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960).

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Feminist Mistake

Heard this morning that Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique and founder of the National Organization of Women (NOW), died yesterday at 85.

NPR interviewed Eleanor Smeal who worked with Friedan to start NOW. Smeal of course eulogized Friedan. She praised Friedan's legacy and lauded her as (I quote from memory) "a giant of the twentieth century."

Yes, like Joseph Stalin.

And the comparison is not histrionic. Since 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared open season on the unborn by making abortion legal through all nine months of pregnancy, 42 million unborn American children have been stifled—with their mothers' consent. Friedan was one of the voices who helped enable this maternal self-immolation and mass murder.1 While there is more than likely some silver lining to Friedan's influence (as with almost anything), what can redeem the deaths of so many innocent lives—not to mention the social disintergration accompanying the dissolution of the family?2

I wasn't surprised when Ms Smeal mentioned Friedan's support for "gay rights" from 1978. If women are equivalent to men and if sexual differences are exploitative, then why not let men exploit other men sexually? As Marx's friend Engels said so many years ago: it's all about power anyway.3

As we all must, Ms Friedan has passed from this earth to her eternal reward. I'll resist the urge to lead a chorus of "Ding dong! The Witch Is Dead," but I can't help observing that her passing inspires hope that her baneful influence will similarly recede into the past, laid to rest among the antiquated ideologies that made the twentieth century such a nightmare.


1. Friedan wasn't initially pro-abortion (she had to be persuaded by the founders of NARAL of the consistency of abortion with her anti-feminine positions), but she did so early enough in the abortion "rights" movement to have made a substantial difference. The first feminists, who valued the truly feminine, were naturally pro-life.

2. More on Fredan and on the tremendous importance of motherhood: Mothers Know Best.

3. The natural question to ask Engels then is "what power do you hope to gain by this observation?" Logically, the ideology is self-defeating.