Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Prayer of Gratitude

I thought this would be appropriate for the beginning of Lent.

Dearest Lord God,

Help me to be thankful for all the blessings you have bestowed on me, which, like my existence itself, I hold not by any justice of mine, but by the richness of your merciful kindness. Help me to realize that the goods of this world are simply signs of your love, and that despite their fleetingness, you remain. Help me to see that no matter what my life may lack, you are with me. I need nothing more: you are that priceless pearl, beside whom all other goods are naught.

Thank you for making me, with all my endowments and shortcomings. Thank you for my life to this point: the joys, sorrows, goofs, and even the sins you have allowed, which remind me of my dependence on you. Thank you for the gift of my present afflictions, which draw me closer to you and help me to see you, the only real good. Thank you for everything that has opened me to the grace you want to give me right now, the grace that will bring me to live with you in eternal joy.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Reductionism and Natures

The Institute for the Study of Nature has now posted the text of Mike Augros's January 28 talk at MIT. The talk is a splendid source of material for understanding the intersection of the natural sciences and natural philosophy and the need of science to be complemented by philosophy. The talk is well worth reading in its entirety, including the appendices.

I thought I might quote a little of it that dovetails with the remarks of Thomas Nagel I quoted last post:

Now, consider the ultimate elementary particles (or forces or fields or what have you)—whatever they may be, presumably they are blind, mindless things, obeying their own natural laws quite unconsciously and automatically. The elementary things, when we observe them existing and acting on their own, do what they do regardless of rational concerns, and they must do so, in accord with a preset program of action. They obey laws such as Newton’s first law of motion, and do so without any rational object in view. Any net result which they fully explain will therefore be fully intelligible apart from introducing (for example) any concern for truth. So, where we find actions which are not fully understandable apart from rational motives, such actions are not purely and simply the result of irrational natures interacting irrationally.

This means that in the case of a human being, which is composed entirely out of parts with irrational natures, and yet behaves rationally and puts its parts to rational purposes, we must admit the presence of a new nature, a rational nature. This nature is not something alongside the particles themselves, like another particle, or a vitalistic force floating about in between the particles and telling them what to do—it is simply the new nature of the particles themselves, while they exist in that human form. This general view explains both why human beings have motives for action which their components in isolation do not, and also why we do nothing without using our atoms.

We understand non-human animals similarly. He then makes an analogy to the word "blackbird," which is composed of two words (namely "black" and "bird") that have meaning in isolation, but when combined take on a whole new meaning, a new nature.

As I noted with regard to Nagel's paper, particles and forces are unable to articulate higher-level concepts, for example organismic species. Nevertheless, organisms never operate apart from their particles and forces. It's a subtle point that we moderns almost invariably overlook.

Michael Augros, "A ‘ Bigger’ Physics," Insurgent Science Series (January 28, 2009).

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Reductionism & The Origin of Non-Species

Reductionism and Darwinian evolution: what do they have to do with each other? A lot, as I will shortly explain.

But first a couple upcoming events. The Institute for the Study of Nature (ISN) has announced its plans for its annual Summer Seminar and Conference, June 15-20, 2009 at MIT. This year's theme is "Reduction, Emergence, and Essence." In other words, it's about the limits of the scientific strategy of explaining wholes by breaking them down into parts, about the rising tide of emergentism, which tries to recover the wholeness of things, and about the need to go back to the classical (philosophical) language of essence in order to return science to the world we actually live in. This year, ISN is offering scholarships to the Seminar and has even made printable publicity materials available to be downloaded from the website. The deadline for applying is fast approaching: check out the website.

But if you're in no way constrained to the Western hemisphere, you may want to check out a prior and unrelated event, the conference on evolution in Rome next month: Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories: A critical appraisal 150 years after "The origin of species", 3-7 March 2009 at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Of course this year is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, as well as the 150th anniversary of his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The New York Times has a special spread celebrating that work (and, knowing the Times, by implication the license they think it gives them to disregard any moral constraint they find inconvenient).

Darwin's The Origin of Species says much less than people think it does. I have recently been doing some reading on reductionism and, in an insightful paper by Thomas Nagel (NYU professor of philosophy and law), I ran across a paragraph that, without being directly about Darwin's theory, has strong implications for understanding it:

How could the following two propositions both be true?

  1. Every event that happens in the world has a fundamental physical description and a fundamental physical explanation.
  2. Some facts about the world do not have a fundamental physical explanation, but do have a higher-level explanation.

The answer is that they could both be true if the higher-level explanations depended on principles governing the relations between general types of phenomena or properties that were not subject to correspondingly general characterization in ultimate physical terms, even though each instance of such a phenomenon had a distinct ultimate physical characterization. Perhaps not all naturally important kinds correspond to kinds definable in basic physics. If that were so, the laws operating at the higher level could not be derived from corresponding laws couched at the fundamental level, even though each event falling under the higher-level laws could be given a separate ultimate explanation. (7)

The most important sentence here is "Perhaps not all naturally important kinds correspond to kinds definable in basic physics." As an illustration of this, take what he says earlier:

Even though new levels of [reductionistic] explanation become available over time, they do not necessarily result in the elimination of the old [less reductionistic explanations]. For example, I gather that explanations of heredity in terms of classical genetics, descended from the Mendelian theory, are not about to be simply replaced by explanations in the language of molecular biology (Kitcher 1984). (5)

(Yes, I've snatched this out of context, but it's still a good example here.)

Of course, Darwin's triumph was to break down the last barrier to Newton's blind, mechanical universe. Darwin extended mechanism to living things. The fundamental problem is that organismic species are not "definable in basic physics." If one looks at the universe exclusively in a mechanical (Darwinian) way, there are no species, but only individuals1 who may or may not have enough genetic heritage in common to allow their interbreeding. But even given that they can interbreed, there's no guarantee that their offspring will be of the same "kind" (i.e., or whether elephants might give birth to the occasional giraffe, so to speak). Indeed by Darwin's lights, there are no "kinds."

So the great irony is that the consequence of Darwin's The Origin of Species is that there are no species, but only a vast continuum of various individuals.2

Of course, this is only a problem if one takes Darwin to be a complete worldview. Nonsense, such as the claiming the non-existence of species, makes it very clear that, while the Darwinian theory has real virtues and provides insights into the origin of life-forms, it is not a complete worldview.

What's really real in reductionistic theories are the particles3 of which things are composed; everything else is just a modification of the particles' configuration and motion. Darwin's theory suffers from the same weakness as all reductionistic theories: it cannot account for the reality, the meaningfulness, of the high-level concepts that we use in our everyday lives.


1. Actually if we want to take the reductionistic point of view seriously, there aren't even individuals, but only temporary clouds of matter that for convenience we call individuals.

2. Of course, there are always two sides to an issue. The Times highlights the selection from the Origin in which Darwin claims that "species come to be tolerably well-defined objects," since individuals representing intermediate forms would be rare. But rare is not impossible (hence the hedge "tolerably"). Darwin's philosophically consistent 20th-century interpreter Ernst Mayr saw the weakness of this claim. Of course, expecting philosophical rigor from Darwin (or the Times) is as realistic as expecting doctrinal rigor from Anglicans (no coincidence: Darwin was trained as an Anglican clergyman).

3. One wonders why we need to stop reduction at these particles.

Thomas Nagel 1998 "Reductionism and antireductionism," The limits of reductionism in biology. Wiley, Chichester (Novartis Foundation Symposium 213), 3-14.

Monday, February 02, 2009

On Marriage: a Bad Good-Article and Two Better Ones

I've been terribly busy with work, but I'd like to call to you attention an interesting triptych of articles on marriage in Touchstone.

First "Divorced from Reality" by Stephen Baskerville. I've rather inclined to believe what the article has to say: that unilateral ("no-fault") divorce is effectively a way for the state to stage hostile take-overs of families. The currency of this issue cannot be overstated:

Today’s disputes over marriage in fact have their origin in this one. Demands to redefine marriage to include homosexual couples are inconceivable apart from the redefinition of marriage already effected by heterosexuals through divorce. Though gays cite the very desire to marry as evidence that their lifestyle is not inherently promiscuous, activist Andrew Sullivan acknowledges that that desire has arisen only because of the promiscuity permitted in modern marriage. “The world of no-strings heterosexual hookups and 50 percent divorce rates preceded gay marriage,” he points out. “All homosexuals are saying ... is that, under the current definition, there’s no reason to exclude us. If you want to return straight marriage to the 1950s, go ahead. But until you do, the exclusion of gays is . . . a denial of basic civil equality” (emphasis added). Gays do not want traditional monogamous marriage, only the version debased by divorce. (20)

The problem is that I found the histrionic tone made it rather too easy to doubt the author's credibility. For example:

Some four decades ago, while few were paying attention, the Western world embarked on the boldest social experiment in its history. With no public discussion of the possible consequences, laws were enacted in virtually every jurisdiction that effectively ended marriage as a legal contract. Today it is not possible to form a binding agreement to create a family. The government can now, at the request of one spouse, simply dissolve a marriage over the objection of the other. (19)

It may be that the move "four decades ago" was truly as idioticly undiscussed as this passage implies. It may be that it is impossible to explain the historical debate, because the debate was non-existent. But one would expect at least some sign of self-awareness about the incredibility of describing such a situation. The way it is written, it sounds as if the author is oversimplifying and making rhetorical capital out of it.

Second is Allan Carlson's "Meaningful Intercourse: The Rise and Fall of the Sexual Constitution of the West" (not available online), which draws the parallel between modern notions of sexuality and those of ancient Gnosticism. He points out the demise of our civilization is coming through the acceptance of contraception and the legitimating of illegitimacy.

Third, I would also like to commend to you another article in the same issue "Phony Matrimony" by Christopher Oleson (not available online).1 Oleson traces the implosion of marriage in the West back to the easy acceptance of contraception. He points out that it is difficult for a couple these days to marry in the traditional understanding of that term, because (1) we don't see openness to children as essential to marriage, and (2) in the backs of our heads we all have an escape-hatch conception of marriage: as a revocable contract, so that if worse comes to worse, we can divorce and remarry someone who will make us "happy." Excluding same-sex couples from "marriage," in this understanding of the term, is not logically consistent, he says.2

All three articles are insightful, and look behind the popular uproar over same-sex "marriage" to find the much more fundamental problem: we now miss the horses, but they left the stable a long while ago, and we ourselves let them out.3


1. Corny title. A colleague of Oleson's I spoke to said Oleson was somewhat annoyed that Touchstone changed the title of his "Our Last 'Marriage' Taboo" without asking him. In the current issue, the editors' reply to a letter reveals that they had cut a substantial, substantive section of an article in the October 2008 issue "for reasons of space" (9). It sounds like Touchstone's editors need to take more care with their authors' intentions.

2. Anthony Esolen weighs in in a sidebar (p. 37), agreeing largely with Oleson, but adding that real same-sex (i.e., non-sexual) friendships are also a good to be protected in uniquely opposing homosexuality. Of course, he's not speaking specifically of "marriages", but of relationships in general.

3. This is in the best tradition of Touchstone, which some years back pointed out that the more basic problem with openly homosexual Episcopalian bishop Gene Robinson came not with his Church's acceptance of his sexual "preference," but with his Church's acceptance of his abandonment of his wife and children.

Stephen Baskerville, "Divorced from Reality," Touchstone 22:1 (Jan-Feb 2009), 19-25.

Allan Carlson, "Meaningful Intercourse: The Rise and Fall of the Sexual Constitution of the West," Touchstone 22:1 (Jan-Feb 2009), 26-31.

Christopher Oleson, "Phony Matrimony," Touchstone 22:1 (Jan-Feb 2009), 32-37.