Friday, November 17, 2006

More from Maritain Conference

Two weeks ago (Nov. 2-5) I attended the American Maritain Association conference in Nashville. The topic was "Nature, Science, and Wisdom: the Role of the Philosophy of Nature." I posted a little on it last week, and I would like to tell you more now. There were many great talks and because many were concurrent, I was unable to make it to all of those that interested me. Below are some sparse and unfortunately inadequate notes on those I attended.

Fr. Leo Elders spoke on St. Thomas Aquinas's commentary on Aristotle's Physics. There are diverse ways of grouping the 8 books of the Physics. The first five books are on nature and the last three are on motion. But Porphyry and Philoponus classed book 5 with books 6-8. Aquinas classed books 3 and 4 as being on movement, 5 and 6 on parts of movement, and 7 on movement in relation to movers. Fr. Elders contends that when St Thomas write in his commentary of what he regards as secure doctrine (teaching) in the Physics, he calls Aristotle "the Philosopher." Thus book 8 is not established doctrine. In his commentary on De Caelo (On the Heavens), St. Thomas says that Aristotle's cosmology is not necessarily true: that other cosmologies are possible.

Mark Ryland's plenary talk emphasized the ways in which both Darwinism and its primary critic Intelligent Design (ID) have in common a very modern view of Nature; he criticized the modern view and suggested that Aristotle's view must be brought back into the modern debate to provide a more radical critique of the philosophical problems that have grown up around modern science. He was at pains to emphasize, however, that ID does broadly agree with Aristotle in rejecting materialist reductionism and arguing for an intelligent cause; this gulf separating ID and Aristotle from such reductionism dwarf the differences between the two.

The big assumption that ID and Darwinism have in common is that "design" can only come from outside of nature—that the regular workings of nature cannot themselves manifest an intelligent designer, but God's workings somehow can only be over and above those of nature. This commonality of outlook predates Darwin even in those advocating design: William Paley's example concluding design from a watch found in the woods was overtly mechanistic. The ordering within a watch does not come from within, as it would in a natural thing like a tree, but from without. The parts of a watch have no intrinsic relationship to each other: the order is imparted from outside. Darwinism is the completion of the Newtonian revolution because Darwin brought naturalism to biology in the way that Newton and his followers had brought it to the inanimante world and the cosmos.

The modern Intelligent Design movement manifests the same problem. In William Dembski's trichotomy of explanations into "necessity, chance, and design." Necessity is another name for things that happen by a regularity that can be encapsulated as a law. But why can't regularities in nature demonstrate "design" in some sense? Surely the fact that pine seeds grow up in the vast majority of cases to be pine trees and not "man-faced ox progeny" or some other monster is evidence of order in the world, and thus of an orderer. As Peter Pagan said in his talk, "Admitting natural selection without a selector is like admitting action without an agent" (paraphrase).

Bryan Cross's paper, "A Philosophical Critique of Dembski’s Mathematical Argument to Design," amplified on the shortcomings of ID by dismantling a critical part of Dembski's design argument.

In his book No Free Lunch, William Dembski argues that certain recently proven mathematical theorems show that evolutionary algorithms are in themselves unable to generate specified complex information [necessary for development of new forms].... thus that intelligence can be the only source of such information. [p. 1]


I have considered various ways of modifying Dembski's Natural Cause argument so as to make it valid, and I think I have shown that none of these ways is successful.... This does not mean that we cannot by way of natural reason determine that nature was intelligently designed. On the contrary, the intelligent design of nature is readily apparent, even in (and perhaps especially in) its mathematical elegance as revealed more fully by modern physics. But I have shown that the generative limitations of mathematical algorithms do not demonstrate that the complex specified information we happen to find in nature must have been inserted into the cosmos by an intelligent designer. [pp. 14-15]

A big part of Dembski's problem, according to Cross, is that he assumes that the causal powers of material things are completely described by the mathematical representions of their characterizations. This unexamined assumption is one of the great philosophical mistakes of our age, and so deserves examination here. Cross writes lucidly on the inadequacy of mathematics to comprehend reality:

Mathematical modeling is more successful when we are treating very simple entities, or artifacts whose extrinsic nature is simple. Mathematical modeling also works best over a short period of time. The longer we run out the model, typically the less likely the result matches the state of the actual thing being modeled. We 'successfully' model complex entities only by at least to some significant degree stripping away (abstractively) their depth of being, their particularities or unique accidents, and their environmental interactions. Perhaps 'wildly' successful is a bit of an overstatement.

What is more ontologically revealing, is not how well simple entities can be mathematically modeled, but how even the simplest of living organisms cannot as such be mathematically modeled. The greater the difficulty in mathematically capturing entities as we move up the chain of being indicates that we never fully capture them as we move down the chain of being. Even the simplest of material beings is still a material being, neither a pure form nor an ens rationis [being of reason]. This implies that no material being can be perfectly mathematically modeled. Therefore, we cannot justifiably assume that the per se limitations of purely mathematical algorithms with respect to generating information are precisely the information generating limitations of any material being. [pp. 13-14]

Marie George gave a fascinating and entertaining account of the many problems of animal language studies in her talk "Nature, Human Beings, and Animals." These studies claim that apes (and sometimes dolphins) can communicate on par with humans (which they do by pushing buttons on a special keyboard) and thus have intellects. Among the problems she observed with the studies:

  1. Failure to distinguish actions based necessarily on intellect from those based on internal senses (animals are conscious, but not self-conscious),
  2. Failure to acknowledge that animals can learn and their characteristic actions need not be based exclusively on instinct,
  3. Failure of researchers to provide transcripts or data sets (to show how representative remarkable events documented in papers are of their behavior).
  4. Failure to account for influence of the researcher (e.g., emotional reactions to apes "speaking")

Dr. George described how unredacted accounts of interactions with these apes show how unconversational they are. Their words are statements are mostly single words, such as "banana," or "tickle [me]." She read a published journalistic account in which the ape mostly tried to insert a stick in the journalist's ear. Apes don't use language to augment their own knowledge of the world, or that of others—in other words they don't converse.

Dr. George quoted Noam Chomsky as saying, "It’s about as likely that an ape will prove to have a language ability as that there is an island somewhere with a species of flightless birds waiting for human being to teach them to fly." In other words, if apes were capable by nature of communicating in a human way, they wouldn't need us humans to unlock that capability. Contrast the painstaking efforts required to get an ape to "talk" with the almost automatic aquisition of language by a human infant (to the point that it would take incredible efforts to prevent a human infant from talking).

November 29: corrected summary of Mark Ryland's talk; other minor corrections.


mjmcdonald said...

I came across an amusing formulation of the model reduction that Cross describes: Assume a spherical cow. (In a recent Science magazine, maybe?)

rjp said...

How does one get a printed copy of these talks?

Lawrence Gage said...

You can find Bryan Cross's paper here: A Philosophical Critique of Dembski’s Mathematical Argument to Design.

The others will be available in the conference proceedings when they are eventually published. You can check with the American Maritain Association for updates.


rjp said...

There seems to be a couple of errors in Cross's paper. On page 7 he says, "...such that the object presented to the intellect can neither exist apart from
matter nor be conceived apart from matter. Here the result is metaphysical knowledge, knowledge of being as being."

On page 9 he says, "But physico-mathematical knowledge is not knowledge of the material causes, the efficient causes, the final causes, or even the non-quantitative and substantial formal causes." while on p10. he says, "I think Maritain has shown that our physico-mathematical knowledge is a knowledge obtained by abstracting material, efficient, final, and the non-quantitative and substantial formal causes."

It's possible to read these latter two statements in a way that is non-contradictory, but he also said on p9, "The scientia media by which we obtain physico-mathematical knowledge is a
science because it provides us with knowledge of one causal aspect of the events, namely,
the formal causal relations of quantities and geometrical figure in relation to space and

Lawrence Gage said...

I conveyed your comments to Dr. Cross and he expressed his thanks.

In the posted version of the paper, he has corrected the error on p. 7, and added a word to clarify the unclear statement on p. 10.