Saturday, April 25, 2009

Dawkins's Dune

Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion (2007) is probably one of the most overblown rants in the English language published in living memory. Other than revealing how shallow and arrogant the author is (he cannot even condescend to read and understand his opponents' arguments—and admits as much), the book is not very useful.

However, in spite of himself, Dawkins does manage to allow through some glimmers of light. One such point of light is an example that forms part of an argument in which Dawkins is trying to undermine our perceptions of matter and material things, including ourselves, as really being things. As he writes on p. 371:

Steve Grand points out that you and I are more like waves than permanent 'things'. He invites his reader to think...

...of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren't you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren't there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place...Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn't make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.

To which the appropriate response—the one for which the authors will pause expectantly until you gratify them—is a "Deeep, dude!" uttered with exaggerated awe. (Otherwise, they'll give you a hound-dog dejected look.) The tone of the whole book is similarly, sophistically sophomoric. Notice that if neither you, nor I, nor Dr. Dawkins, nor Dr. Grand are really the same in the past as now, what are we? Furthermore, how can we be said to exist then or now or to the point where any of us can say, "I think such-and-such to be the case," for example, "I think that I do not exist." If "I" do not exist, then how can "I" think? The argument is self-defeating.

Grand is actually right when he says, "Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made," though by his company with Richard Dawkins one has to suspect that he doesn't draw the right conclusions. Dawkins has the world upside-down: our ordinary perceptions (appropriately sifted through philosophical reason) are actually more certain than "scientific" conclusions that would undermine them. As I've already pointed out, if "I" don't exist, how can "I" know the existence of anything else, including scientific evidence? Dawkins manages to make such ridiculous claims only by implicitly exempting himself: it's as if he's a god, above it all.

Anyway, to get to Dawkins's thought-provoking passage:

In a desert plain in Tanzania, in the shadow of Ol Donyo Lengai, sacred volcano of the Masai, there is a large dune made of ash from an eruption in 1969. It is carved into shape by the wind. But the beautiful thing is that it moves bodily. It is what is technically known as a barchan (pronounced bahkahn). The entire dune walks across the desert in a westerly direction at a speed of about 17 metres per year. It retains its crescent shape and creeps along the direction of the horns. The wind blows sand up the shallower slope. Then as each sand grain hits the top of the ridge, it cascades down the steeper slope on the inside of the crescent. (370)

Like an organism, say a plant, the barchan's matter stays with it, without it being completely identified with the particular matter that constitutes it at a given time. The dynamics of the sand that makes up the dune is certainly part of the dynamics of the dune, but notice that for the most part the sand is simply inert and the forces that shape the dune are external and extrinsic to the dune itself, namely, the wind.

In contrast there is an intimate connection between the dynamics of a plant and the dynamics of its parts: the plant can truly be said to be controlled from the inside, that is, intrinsically.2 (It is typical of modern, "scientific" mentality that it cannot recognize intrinsic properties.) This is most evident in the early stages of an organism’s development. This difference from non-living matter is particularly evident in the plant’s initial burst of growth. The principle directing all the action is intrinsic to the seed; in growing, what develops or unfolds is something that is already present. The sprouting seed takes in new matter and incorporates it into the structure of itself.

The parts of an organism are interdependent: they all rely on each other and support each other. For example, the roots bring in the water and nutrients the leaves need to photosynthesize, but the roots can't operate without energy from the leaves: which came first the roots or the leaves? The answer is both. Interdependence means that the whole system has to be present in some way from the beginning, before more matter has been assimilated: it's all or nothing. This is not to say that the living being is somehow independent of matter (manifestly it has to be instantiated by some matter all along), but simply that the matter is secondary, fungible (the form supervenes on the matter). While the matter comes and goes, it is actively involved in recruiting new matter to take its place in forming the organism.

Nature, as Aristotle wrote, is an intrinsic principle of motion and rest. While a barchan and a plant depend on matter without being identical with their matter, the barchan doesn't have a nature and isn't really a cohesive "thing" because its motion is governed from without. But a plant, like every other organism, has a nature—an inner principle—that controls its growth.3

Dawkins and company would have us believe that we organisms are a casual agglomeration of matter, like a barchan. Odd isn't it, that a man who claims to study nature would have such a poor grasp of it?4


1. From the good chunk of Edward Feser's The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism I've already read, I recommend it highly.

2. Notice the word is "intrinsically," not "internally." It's not hard to conceive of something being inside a plant without it being part of the plant. For example, trees often grow around obstacles, like barbed-wire fences. A piece of matter is part of a living being to the extent that it contributes to its life.

3. It is instructive to compare these distinctions with the recent discussion of the (still nameless) fire creature.

4. Bertrand Russell said, "Mathematics is the only science where one never knows what one is talking about nor whether what is said is true." Something of this attitude has rubbed off on modern science.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007).

Steve Grand, Creation: Life and How to Make It (Harvard University Press, 2001).

Aristotle, Physics II.1.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Fr. Jaki Roundup

Last week I told you about the passing of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki. Eventually I will have to post something more in-depth about the man and his work. But in the meantime, I'll simply link to some recent items about him and highlight the more noteworthy information. This first group is obituaries.

The Los Angeles Times includes this interesting local detail: "From 1957 to 1960, Jaki lived and worked as bookkeeper at the Woodside Priory, which he co-founded with six other Benedictine priests, in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Portola Valley." The New York Times obituary concludes, "He is survived by two brothers, both Benedictine priests, the Rev. Zeno Jaki and the Rev. Theodose Jaki, who live at the Archabbey of Pannonhalma." So he is being buried at the Archabbey of Pannonhalma, about an hour and a half west of Budapest.1

There is also a beautiful series of posts at Casa Santa Lidia:

From which we learn that Fr. Jaki's funeral was at "Monasterio de Nuestra Senora de Montserrat in Madrid (plaza San Bernardo, 79) at 17:00 this evening (Wednesday the 8th April)" and "Father Jaki's body will return to Hungary on Friday [the 17th]. Burial will take place on the 29th April at Pannonhalma, at 14:30 (2:30 p.m.)." (h/t the Blue Boar)

This next group are older items that I include as background:

In the wake of Fr. Jaki's death, the Duhem Society has been founded to study the works of those two great historians of science, Fr. Jaki and Pierre Duhem. (h/t the Curt Jester) One of the more useful posts so far is a list of their works available online.


1. A friend has asked for a prayer card. If anyone has one, and would take the trouble to scan and post online, it would be appreciated.

Update (4/24): Fr. Rutler has a wonderful tribute to Fr. Jaki on Inside Catholic. Yes, Fr. Jaki was a Benedictine, though in the photo he appears to be dressed as a Jesuit. ;o)

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Stanley L. Jaki, RIP

I just found out Fr. Jaki died on Tuesday. This definitely represents the passing of an era. From the Seton Hall obituary:

Rev. Stanley L. Jaki, the world-renowned Hungarian-born author, physicist, philosopher and theologian died April 7 in Madrid, following a heart attack. Known as a leading thinker in areas at the boundary of theology and science, Jaki was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1987. He was cited for delineating "the importance of differences as well as similarities between science and religion, adding significant, balanced enlightenment to the field."

He had traveled to Spain from Rome where he had lectured last week on his latest book at the Renaissance-era Casina (Garden House) of Pope Pius IV, headquarters of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, of which he was an honorary member since 1990. He was 84 years old.

More details of his last days are posted on his Wikipedia entry. As mercurial as Wikipedia is, I'll take the liberty of preserving the relevant paragraph here:

Father Jaki died on April 7, 2009, at about 1:15 PM (MET) in the Intensive Care Unit of the Clinica de la Conception in Madrid (Spain). He was in Spain to visit friends on his way back to the USA, after delivering some lectures in Rome, for the Master in Faith and Science of the Pontificio Ateneo Regina Apostolorum. He died from the consequences of a heart attack he suffered (without realizing it) while still in Rome. When he arrived in Madrid on March 27, 2009, he was brought to the hospital almost immediately . He remained fully conscious for two days, but then was sedated for medical reasons; he died without regaining consciousness. Four of his friends were holding his hands and praying for him.1

I hope he was able to receive Last Rites.

I first met Fr. Jaki when I as an undergraduate hosted a lecture of his in Houston. A detail of that visit that stands out for me is the relish with which he ate the osso bucco he ordered for dinner.

Over the years I attended many of his lectures in NYC and DC, and even hosted a couple of them. He was definitely a decisive intellect: one always knew where he stood on any topic he cared to speak about. He was a voracious reader and a voluminous writer. The Wikipedia page only lists a small fraction of his publications; for the others you'll need to visit the links at the bottom of the entry.

Steve Barr tells me that he posted on the First Things blog on Tuesday. "For many years Fr. Jaki was the only scientist who wrote about science and religion from a Catholic perspective, at least the only one who commanded a wide audience.... Now there are increasing numbers of research scientists who are Catholic and have taken up the pen.... But Fr. Jaki bravely blazed the trail for us. R.I.P."

I haven’t found anything about funeral arrangements (Seton Hall PR Dept is closed for the Triduum, but I left a message and will post any updates here).

Please pray for his eternal repose.

Update (4/10): Holly Wojcik from Seton Hall was kind enough to return my call yesterday evening. Fr. Jaki's funeral was Wednesday in Spain. He will be buried in Hungary at the monastery where his two brothers (also priests) live.


1. The entry for the edit in the article's history page says, "08:15, 8 April 2009 (talk) (6,282 bytes) (About his death. The writer was present at the death.)". The IP address is from Madrid. So these details are consistent with what's written.

Monday, April 06, 2009

NYT: Global Warming Enthusiasts Need Not Lose Faith

It's long been noted by those skeptical of the "consensus" on global warming that over the last decade, the Earth's average surface temperature has been more or less flat. The New York Times's Andrew C. Revkin notes a forthcoming peer-reviewed paper that argues that flat temperatures—and indeed even cooling spells—are not incompatible with a larger warming trend.

I'm not sure how much this paper proves. Does it prove so much that its conclusions backfire? Lacking a subscription to the journal, I can't read the article. But it would seem to me that what's sauce for the goose also works for the gander: the converse should also be true: short warming spells should also be compatible with an overall cooling trend. The question then is: how scale-dependent are these relationships? Could a century-long warming spell be compatible with a much larger cooling trend? If they're stochastic in the usual sense, the answer would have to be yes.

In that case, the paper's conclusions are actually a much more powerful weapon in the hands of climate-change skeptics than global-warming believers. The paper's analysis would equally argue that the recent century of warming would provide no good evidence that we're not in the midst of a larger cool trend.

Take note of the end of the Revkin piece about other efforts he's engaged in to defend the politically correct faith. Read: the failure of rising water levels to materialize shouldn't make you question the reality of an unnaturally warming planet. But somehow, an increasing number of people appear to be questioning the conventional "wisdom."

Linus: [to Sally as she walks away with everyone else] Hey, aren't you going to stay to greet the Great Pumpkin? Huh? It won't be long now. If the Great Pumpkin comes, I'll still put in a good word for you!

Linus: Good grief! I said "if"! I meant, "when" he comes!

Linus: I'm doomed. One little slip like that could cause the Great Pumpkin to pass you by. Oh, Great Pumpkin, where are you?

Easterling, D. R., and M. F. Wehner (2009), "Is the climate warming or cooling?" Geophys. Res. Lett., doi:10.1029/2009GL037810.

Quotation from It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966).

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Seven Deadly Sins of Religion in Science Fiction

"The 7 Deadly Sins Of Religion In Science Fiction" by Charlie Jane Anders gets it just about right.1 I'll leave it to you to read the column's illustrative examples and entertaining language, but here are the "sins" to which I add a brief explanatory paraphrase:

  1. The cargo cult. [Primitive peoples worshiping more advanced technology]
  2. The cheap Jesus. [Christ imagery plopped on]
  3. The dumb space gods. [Appearances of the Divine should appear divine.]
  4. The all-purpose patch for lazy writing. [AKA Deus ex machina ending, i.e., pulling a ending outta "heaven" that's actually thin air]
  5. Simplistic religion vs. science battles. [as if a Dawkins drone wrote the script]
  6. Simplistic science-bashing in the name of religion. [don't see how this can be clarified briefly]
  7. New-agey-ness. [yeah, Boomers should be banned from writing and directing]

Numbers 1-3 might be summarized by "simplistic or caricature religion"—the religious counterpart to number 6's simplistic science. Number 7 might be called simplistic "self-caricature" religion—the real pity of it is that new age practitioners don't recognize what a superficial, ersatz "spirituality" they've fallen for. Number 4 is just plain bad writing, but then these all reflect bad writing. But I most appreciate number 5: it's a point that can't be made too often these days.


1. My blind spot in commenting on this column is that it jumps off of the Battlestar Galactica series that recently ended, and I've seen exactly zero of the episodes. (Perhaps my lacking a television excuses me.)