Saturday, December 25, 2010

Peace on Earth (to Men of Good Will)

Hail the newborn Prince of Peace!

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." (Is 9:6)

I recently read Werner Heisenberg's Gifford Lectures (1955-56), on which I'll post later. In the meantime, I thought one particular passage was particularly appropriate to this feast. Here, Heisenberg is talking about the way scientists can advance peace in the world, and in particular how they are often asked to endorse peace resolutions:

Such [solemn] resolutions [in favor of world peace] may seem a welcome proof of goodwill; but anyone who speaks in favor of peace without stating precisely the conditions of this peace must at once be suspected of speaking only about that kind of peace in which he and his group thrive best—which of course would be completely worthless. Any honest declaration for peace must be an enumeration of the sacrifices one is prepared to make for its preservation.

Sacrifice. Peace needs sacrifice. Already in the Nativity we see the sacrifice of the Prince of Peace adumbrated: in the slaughter of the Innocents, in his Circumcision. In traditional icons, the bindings swaddling the Infant foreshadow the binding of the entombed Crucified.

For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1:19-20)

Our redemption begins with the Incarnation, made manifest in our Lord's birth.

Merry Christmas!

Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1958), 192-3.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Hawking off the Reservation Again

The media have been aflurry with Hawking's latest pronouncement. The Wall Street Journal features an excerpt of his recently published book The Grand Design, written with Leonard Mlodinow. Here's an excerpt of that excerpt:

Newton believed that our strangely habitable solar system did not "arise out of chaos by the mere laws of nature." Instead, he maintained that the order in the universe was "created by God at first and conserved by him to this Day in the same state and condition." The discovery recently of the extreme fine-tuning of so many laws of nature could lead some back to the idea that this grand design is the work of some grand Designer. Yet the latest advances in cosmology explain why the laws of the universe seem tailor-made for humans, without the need for a benevolent creator.

(But why not a malevolent creator?)

Hawking then reviews the so-called anthropic coincidences—the apparent fine tuning of constants in our mathematical laws of physics—without which the human life, or even the continued existence of the universe itself would be impossible.

Many people would like us to use these [anthropic] coincidences as evidence of the work of God. The idea that the universe was designed to accommodate mankind appears in theologies and mythologies dating from thousands of years ago. In Western culture the Old Testament contains the idea of providential design, but the traditional Christian viewpoint was also greatly influenced by Aristotle, who believed "in an intelligent natural world that functions according to some deliberate design."

[If the universe weren't intelligent in some sense, then how could intelligence discover its rules?]

That is not the answer of modern science. As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation [!] is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

Our universe seems to be one of many, each with different laws. That multiverse idea is not a notion invented to account for the miracle of fine tuning. It is a consequence predicted by many theories in modern cosmology. If it is true it reduces the strong anthropic principle to the weak one, putting the fine tunings of physical law on the same footing as the environmental factors, for it means that our cosmic habitat—now the entire observable universe—is just one of many.

Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states. Only a very few would allow creatures like us to exist. Although we are puny and insignificant on the scale of the cosmos, this makes us in a sense the lords of creation.

As soon as Hawking invokes the word "creation," he's departed physics for metaphysics. Physics of any kind can only study things that move. Creation is not a motion: something either exists or it doesn't. There is no motion between the two discrete states of being and non-being. Mathematical physics can't even handle the concept "nothing" (of course zero is not nothing).

How could nothing (really nothing) generate something? Hawking is using "nothing" equivocally. Perhaps this fuzzy mode of thinking descends from Newton's equivocal use of zero in calculus (at once and in the same expression the variable is zero in one instance, while in another it's non-zero). Or perhaps it's just another manifestation of perennial fuzzy thinking inspired by the consequentialism of the hypothetical-deductive model of science.

Hawking might ask himself how the multiverse exists. And on what basis does Hawking presume the laws of physics1 are self-existent?

"Off the reservation" is a phrase that means "gone rogue." Stephen Hawking hasn't so much gone rogue as shown once again that he is unable to restrict himself to the territory of physics at which he is so adept. He insists on trespassing outside to a subject he shows no evidence of ever having studied seriously: philosophy. Without a serious study of this subject (or at least consulting real experts), Hawking can only pull his ideas from the winds of unreflective (pop) culture: a disappointing performance from a world-class intellect.

Of course the whole controversy (like so many in the media) is a tempest in a tea-pot. Why should anyone care what Hawking says about any random (i.e., non-physics) subject? Xkcd pegs it in this insightful cartoon.


1. Hawking was much wiser when he wrote: "Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire in the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?"

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (Bantam, 2010).

Update (2010-10-05): One can hardly do better than William E. Carroll in addressing the philosophical issues Hawking raises, as in this passage:

Creation is not primarily some distant event. Rather, it is the ongoing, complete causing of the existence of all that is. At this very moment, were God not causing all that is to exist, there would be nothing at all. Creation concerns the origin of the universe, not its temporal beginning. Indeed, it is important to recognize this distinction between origin and beginning. The former affirms the complete, continuing dependence of all that is on God as cause. It may very well be that the universe had a temporal beginning, but there is no contradiction in the notion of an eternal, created universe, for were the universe to be without a beginning it still would have an origin; it still would be created. This is precisely the position of Thomas Aquinas, who accepted as a matter of faith that the universe had a temporal beginning but also defended the intelligibility of a universe simultaneously created and eternal. ("Stephen Hawking’s Creation Confusion")

Monday, August 02, 2010

Fallacious Application of "non-Euclidean" to Physical Space

Physicists sometimes talk about space—by which they of course mean physical space—as Euclidean or non-Euclidean. The problem with this way of speaking is that geometry is timeless. It cannot really apply to physical space.

Notice that if there's one lesson that Einstein's relativity has taught us, it is that space is intrinsically temporal: you can't have one without the other, which is why the combination in the relativistic context is usually called spacetime. Our measurements of length are always in time.

To see this point more clearly (more clearly at least if you are a physicist; I make no guarantees for others), think of the the Minkowski diagram, which plots time on the vertical axis and position on the horizontal (looking at a diagram may be helpful). (It also applies to general relativity with flat spacetimes, that is, regions far from masses.) Light rays are marked at 45-degree angles that divide the plane into four quadrants; the "light cone" consists of the north and south quadrants. There are time-like intervals (points that that lie within the "light cone," that is, that are separated enough in time that they can connect causally) and space-like intervals (points outside the light-cone, that is separated so far in space that they cannot connect causally).

To test whether space is Euclidean, one would have to set out measuring rods in the present, in other words, along the space-like interval parallel to the position (horizontal) axis. (And then test whether parallel lines remain parallel, or else either converge or diverge....)

But relativity has shown us that what one considers the present depends on one's state of motion: the ordering of events is not absolute, there is no unambiguous or absolute "present". On the Minkowski diagram in the frame of a primary, stationary observer, the "present" of a second, moving observer appears as an x' axis tilted obliquely to the x axis.

The assumption of what we usually mean by "length measurement" is that one measures both ends at once (as de Koninck points out, in contradistinction from Maritain, there is no absolute notion of length apart from an observer situated in space and time). Length measurements that are simultaneous in one frame are not simultaneous in another. Because of the relativity of simultaneity, "at once," and thus length measurement, becomes tied to the relative states of motion of the measurer and the object measured.

As we have seen, there is no unambiguous "now"; so the application or denial of the qualifier "Euclidean" to physical space confuses physics for pure mathematics (the error of Descartes). It presumes some sort of a timeless frame for making length measurements and it is precisely the existence of such an absolute frame that relativity denies.

This argument occurred to me when reading Vincent Smith, and was corroborated by de Koninck writing about Eddington.

Vincent Edward Smith, Philosophical Physics (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950), 355.

Charles de Koninck, The writings of Charles de Koninck, vol 1, ed. & trans. Ralph McInerny (Notre Dame, Ind. : University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 147-158.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Feminism and the Experimental Exemplar

In response to my last post an anonymous commentator took me to task for my statements about women. With admirable concision, she says, "How dare you attempt to define what it means to be a woman... YOU AREN'T ONE."

On one level, this is pure nonsense, as many of the other commentators who came to my defense (thank you) noted. On the other hand, this woman expresses a common modern view: that it is objectionable to make objective observations about groups of which one is not a member. A friend related to me how he was denounced for implying that South and East Asians tend to be good with mathematics. There are sometimes popular controversies when a white sports commentator praises the talents of Black athletes as such. And let's not forget the "Nappy Hair" controversy in which a white teacher was hounded out of a school for using a book (by an African-American author) about a beautiful Black girl with "nappy" hair.

Now it is very reasonable to see as silly for anyone to object to praise, but on reflection, I came to realize that such objections are inevitable given modern assumptions about what it means to be human.

Take this statement by a prominent American jurist:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

That's the famed "mystery passage" from Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. It's all about self-definition. Only I define myself, I am not to be defined by anyone else.

This belief finds its root in the modern exaltation of the experimental method above all else. This cultural paradigm has two mutually exclusive parts: the experimenter and the experimental subject under investigation: the knower and the known. The experimenter is incorporeal and transcends all rational consideration, but the subject is corporeal and purely passive or receptive. (Notice that the anonymous commentator calls me "a male-bodied person"—as if my masculinity were only a characteristic of my body, not my whole self. This is modern mind-body dualism: I'm not my body but a disembodied intelligence that owns my body.)

It is distinctively human to know: in the visible universe, humans are the only creatures who know intellectually. Modernity takes as the exemplar of humanity the experimenter who can know but cannot be known. On the other hand, the experimental subject cannot know: it is not human, or somehow less than fully human.

So there are two categories: the knower and the known. Modernity cleaves an impassible boundary between these two: there is no overlap at any given time: one is either known or a knower. So that when someone makes an observation about a group, the modern person implicitly interprets this as an assertion of dominance ("I can know you" = "I transcend you") and an assertion that the group being discussed is somehow less than fully human. (This is a large part of the reason "essentialism" is thoughtcrime in the academy today.)

In reality of course, all of us can be known by others. We have objective traits. Even our mode of knowing reveals something about us. The active and the passive are inextricably intertwined in the human person (as in all creatures), not two separable halves. Knowing itself requires not only acting on the universe, but also being acted upon by the universe. How could I see if light did not act on my eyes, or hear if sound did not act on my ears? In touching I act on something, but am also acted upon. Humans as such are not only actors but also receivers of action.

In making positive statements about what it means to be a woman, our commentator think that I am insulting women by observing they have a nature that can be known. But it is really modernity that insults women:

  • by ascribing personhood only to the invisible, knowing, core of a human, to whom the body and its traits are only accidental,
  • by reconceiving humanity to exclude being known,
  • by redefining receptivity (characteristically feminine2) to be less than human.

Of course femininity and masculinity make no sense without each other. They likewise make no sense without recognition of the end of their union: the procreation of new humans. Women in particular are ridiculous without an understanding of their relation to procreation: the womb, the mammary glands make no sense without their purpose: nurturing a baby. Without that, they are wastes of flesh. Women's wide hips are inefficient for running: what would be the point if the enlarged crania of human children didn't need a wide birth canal? But if women did not have these distinctive physiological features, or the hormonal system that supports their activity, what would separate them from men? Nothing.

Masculinity and femininity (pace our commentator) do not stop with the body, but permeate the soul. Men and women approach reality—know it—in distinctive, complementary ways. This is why one can enjoy the company of a person of the other sex without any genital activity or intentions. There is a mutual complementarity of soul, a give and take, that makes it pleasurable for men and women to talk. It is tragic that our society, in its monomaniacal focus on orgasm, is blind to this more gentle, non-genital form of sexual activity ("sexual" understood in its original sense). It is tragic that mind-body dualism, such as expressed by our commentator, has impoverished our culture and our lives.

Feminists like our commentator are victims of this ideology and unwitting agents of its spread. But perhaps ultimately they are not entirely to blame. Blindness to the more subtle, non-corporeal aspects of sexual complementarity may be the result of psychological trauma. Feminists are often deeply wounded women, and almost always it is the men in their lives who have wounded them.

When men fail to take seriously their responsibility to protect women, and abuse their power, women end up trying to take control. The unfortunate result is feminism3


1. Clifford R. Goldstein misses the point when he says Kennedy is merely protecting conscience rights (religious and otherwise) in the American tradition. He makes Kennedy's statement equivalent to Justice Felix Frankfurter's "Certainly the affirmative pursuit of one's convictions about the ultimate mystery of the universe and man's relation to it is placed beyond the reach of law." Notice the invocation of "law": the Frankfurter statement is about the limits of the law, while Kennedy is philosophizing about ultimate realities (the hubris!). Further, Frankfurter speaks of "the affirmative pursuit of one's convictions" (a freedom for the good as one perceives it), while Kennedy is declaring a right to "define" one's self, not unlike the "knowing good and evil" (i.e., right to define good and evil) that the serpent offered to Eve—a freedom from all outside influences. Goldstein misconceives conscience in precisely the way that Kennedy does, as a self-defining freedom rather than a power that recognizes God's truth mediated by our nature.

2. As I say in the body of text, it is procreation that defines femininity and masculinity. Without procreation, it would make no sense to have sexes (and indeed contraception's destruction of procreation has brought the effacement of sexual differences). There is nothing distinctively feminine except in light of women's role in procreation (also true of the masculine and men, as well as of men and women who forgo procreation to use their masculinity and femininity in other unselfish life-giving ways). Now as Aristotle says, we call feminine was produces life within itself and masculine what produces life in another (e.g., "Mother Nature", the Sun personified as masculine). Thus the feminine that reproduces in conjunction with the masculine is necessarily receptive: she must receive the masculine element into herself to conceive. Notice that in human courtship, the male plays the more active role of approaching the female who can receive (or reject). In social dancing likewise, the male plays the active role and the female the receptive (in Scholastic terminology, "passive") role. Note: women aren't purely receptive; only primary matter is purely receptive. All substantial beings are a mixture of actuality and receptivity.

3. Likewise when kings fail to care for their subjects and aristocrats lord their privilege over commoners, the result is Revolution.

Just ran across this ironic invocation of something very like the mystery passage.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Technology vs. Motherhood

Today is not only Mothers Day, it is ironically also the 50th anniversary of the FDA's approval of the Birth Control Pill, that technology that allows women (and men) to prevent birth in order to avoid control... and motherhood (to take a liberty with Chesterton, who had some other choice words on birth control.)

Time magazine has a pretty thorough review of the history of the Pill, though you have to wonder about a writer who cites the Kinsey Report as anything more than science fantasy authored by a sex maniac (also uses the usual whitewashed biography of Margaret Sanger).

There's one provocative passage about John Rock, one of the Pill's inventors, who was a Roman Catholic:

Would Catholics object and boycott the company's other products? While maintaining its view that contraception — or "sterilizing" the act of intercourse — was morally wrong, the Catholic Church in the 1950s had accepted the rhythm method as a valid approach to family planning; since women were fertile only during certain days around the midpoint of their menstrual cycle, the idea was that couples would limit intercourse to the woman's "safe" period. But this was by no means foolproof, especially for women with irregular cycles.

Rock thought the Pill provided an exquisite chemical escape hatch. With the Pill, there was no barrier preventing the union of sperm and egg; all the Pill did, Rock argued, was mimic naturally occurring hormones to extend the safe period, so that sex was safe all month long. The church wouldn't need to change its historic teaching, he suggested; the Pill just fell outside its definition of contraception.

Yet mimicry, no matter how convincing, is not nature. Rock's argument grew from the classic mechanistic conception of nature: that nature is a somewhat arbitrary assemblage of parts that can be manipulated at our convenience. What's missing is a larger consideration of embodied man as a moral agent. As C.S. Lewis wrote:

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead. (The Abolition of Man, ch. 3.)

Of course pharmaceutical companies have also had to redefine when life begins in order to avoid the Pill being legally categorized as an abortifacient. One of the Pill's secondary effects is to prevent implantation in the uterine lining of a newly conceived child. So big pharma redefined implantation instead of conception to be the beginning of life. (This is not unlike the redefinition of death as "brain death" in order to facilitate the harvesting of organs.)

The Time article is right that the Pill itself did not unleash the sexual revolution: the demand for sexual pleasure without ties that bind has always been a part of human psychology, especially that of men (women as a group tend to desire primarily the relationship sexual relations foster). The Pill is as much a symptom of our societal illness as a cause. The drive to manipulate nature, without accepting the givenness of the world's boundaries, is uniquely modern. The modern project is blind to the sacredness of nature, in particular of human nature. The Pill is a product of this mindset.

The flagship of the modern project is modern science. All of science rises or falls on the experimental method. But take a look at the summit of this method: controlled experimentation. It's about control. Things fall within the purview of modern science to the extent they can be controlled. They fall outside to the extent they transcend control. Thus the "scientific" picture of man is necessarily truncated to that of a being who can be controlled, manipulated at convenience by some unexamined controller:

The expressions ‘the order of nature’ and ‘the biological order’ must not be confused or regarded as identical; the ‘biological order’ does indeed mean the same as the order of nature but only insofar as this is accessible to the methods of empirical and descriptive natural science.... The ‘biological order’, as a product of the human intellect which abstracts its elements from a larger reality, has man for its immediate author.1 (Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, pp. 56–57)

Man is the manipulator, so man is the author of the scientific order. But in the case of the Pill, man is also the object of study. As Lewis expresses it so well:

Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.

....what we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument. (The Abolition of Man, ch. 3.)

Lewis points out how the Pill manipulates future generations. But it also manipulates the women who use it. Feminists like Carolyn Merchant rightly point to the latent anti-feminine agenda of Bacon's experimental method, but fail to raise the alarm about how the products of that method, like the Pill, damage women.2

For the modern project, the dignity of being called human (in the best sense) is only granted to the extent that a person is the controller, not the controlled. Thus women are only considered fully human to the extent they approximate the attributes of the male: power and independence. This is most visible in Enlightenment philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, whose hypothetical states of nature depict men as atoms of force and leave no room for the family, children, or what is distinctly feminine. Women as such are a nullity to the modern project. Feminists accept this premise and seek to exalt women by conforming them to the male archetype.

The Pill is a great boon to playboys and womanizers: having excluded the natural ends of sex, a man may enjoy as many women to enjoy as he desires, with no ties, no limits. The AP article says sardonically, "After all these years, a male equivalent to the birth control pill is still five to seven years away." Contraception is above all about men manipulating women.

The Pill is a great boon to social engineers. What good is motherhood anyway? We need a society of homogenized individuals who can be moved and manipulated for economic exigency, so let's do away with intermediate institutions like the family: in the future children will come from central factories and every man will stand naked before the power of the State. Motherhood doesn't count toward Gross Domestic Product, so what good can that institution be? We need more (immediate) productivity, so turn women out into the work force.

For many purposes the Pill effectively turns a woman into a man: a man who may be more verbal, more social, and adorned with pleasing curves, but still a compact economic unit unencumbered by larger allegiances outside the centrally planned State.

Fulton Sheen wrote, "If parents surrender responsibility to their children, the state will take up the slack. State power is the effect of the breakdown of family authority. Mothers more than politicians are the preservers of freedom and democracy."

So thank your mother today for your life and her love: it means much more for all of us than we may realize.


1. The fuller context of the quotation, which is probably the most important part of Love and Responsibility:

The order of existence is the Divine Order, although existence is not in itself something supernatural. But then the Divine Order includes not only the supernatural order but the order of nature too, which also stands in a permanent relationship to God and the Creator. The expressions 'the order of nature' and 'the biological order' must not be confused or regarded as identical; the 'biological order' does indeed mean the same as the order of nature but [the order of nature] only insofar as this is accessible to the methods of empirical and descriptive natural science, and not as a specific order of existence with an obvious relationship to the First Cause, to God the Creator.

The habit of confusing the order of existence with the biological order, or rather of allowing the second to obscure the first, is part of the generalized empiricism which seems to weigh so heavily on the mind of modern man, and particularly on modern intellectuals, and makes it particularly difficult for them to understand the [not theological but philosophical] principles on which Catholic sexual morality is based. According to those [philosophical] principles sex and the sexual urge are not solely and exclusively a specific part of the psycho-physiological make-up of man. The sexual urge owes its objective importance to its connection with the divine work of creation of which we have been speaking, and this importance vanishes almost completely if our way of thinking is inspired only by the biological order of nature. Seen in this [biological] perspective the sexual urge is only the sum of functions undoubtedly directed, from the biological point of view, towards a biological end, that of reproduction. Now, if man is the master of nature, should he not mould those functions—if necessary artificially, with the help of appropriate techniques—in whatever way he considers expedient and agreeable? The 'biological order', as a product of the human intellect which abstracts its elements from a larger reality, has man for its immediate author. The claim to autonomy in one's ethical views is a short jump from this. It is otherwise with the 'order of nature', which means the totality of the cosmic relationships that arise among really existing entities. It is therefore the order of existence, and the laws which govern it have their foundation in Him, Who is the unfailing source of that existence, in God the Creator. (pp. 56–57)

It should be noted that our access to the natural order is not restricted to that small slice of human experience that is experiment (the basis of modern science). To restrict oneself to exploration of the controllable world is a priori to exclude the possibility of discovering anything beyond experimental control, most especially something as transcendent as the Creator. If a person opens himself to the whole of human common experience and reason, he comes to realize that he is not the author of the world's order, but that it must be given by a transcendent author.

2. Not to mention families and the children they nurture. Also not to mention the many unhealthy side effects, like heightening susceptibility to HIV/AIDS; not to mention damage to the extra-human environment. More health side effects at this link.

Nancy Gibbs, "The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom and Paradox," Time (Apr. 22, 2010).

Carolyn Merchant, "'The Violence of Impediments': Francis Bacon and the Origins of Experimentation," Isis 2008, 99:731-760.

Carla K. Johnson, "America's favorite birth control method turns 50," Associated Press (May 7, 2010).

Fulton J. Sheen, "Women Who Do Not Fail," Life Is Worth Living, Second Series (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1954), 176-177.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Maybe a Blockhead, Maybe Not

No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.

Samuel Johnson, April 5, 1776,
Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)

Perhaps I'm wising up, because I've been engaging in remunerative writing of late—outside this blog of course—in addition to my real job.

But perhaps I'm as much of a blockhead as ever, because I've also been doing some additional writing for Wikipedia. My basic motivation is that Wikipedia is the first place schoolkids turn for information. You yourself have probably noticed that when you look something up on Google, a Wikipedia article on the subject often tops the search results.

Most of the people who write for Wikipedia (I'm thinking of the science-related articles) are pretty ignorant of philosophy and most of these are positivists of some degree or other (seems to be the default for people who learn only "science"—the web is rife with them), who depend on an "authority" with a scientistic agenda, like Bertrand Russell or Carl Sagan, for their history of science and philosophy. The saving grace is that most of the people in charge, whether ignorant or not, want it to be a respectable encyclopedia, which means they would like real research of original sources and probably some sort of historical review section.

On popular misconception about Wikipedia is that, since anyone can edit the articles, anything you contribute will be quickly effaced. To the contrary, I've found that there is a lot of stability to worthy, well-documented contributions. Vandalism, meanwhile, is quickly extirpated.

So I encourage you, if you know anything, to be a blockhead like me and contribute to Wikipedia. You won't get paid, but on the other hand, you get a free platform to help others draw closer to the truth. You'll also be contributing to the body of freely available knowledge and making your mark on history.

If you want to contribute to a particular article, a good place to start is the discussion tab at the top of any given article page.

Anyway, I'll have more free time this summer. Whether I spend it blogging or Wikipedia, or trying to earn a living is another question.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Climate Crisis or Truth Crisis?

In case you missed it, there was an excellent summary at American Thinker of the recent climate-science-scandal revelations. The bad guy is United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The supposedly scientific IPCC report cites data drawn from environmental advocacy groups like World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace (list of such citations)—sources that are no only rather non-scientific, but also far from neutral. Even the leftist Boing-boing was on the defensive.

More recently, has come further revelation: the retraction of a Nature Geoscience paper predicting rising sea-levels. A New Scientist article examined some claims in the IPCC report and provides a balanced evaluation. It concludes that, while some of the details are wrong or rely on dubious sources, the report's findings are on-the-whole correct or at least credible (that is, backed by peer-reviewed research).

Now, Al Gore has weighted in with an op-ed on his favorite topic in last week's New York Times (h/t The Reference Frame). Here's a remarkable sentence: "From the standpoint of governance, what is at stake is our ability to use the rule of law as an instrument of human redemption." Not sure what he means by "redemption"—surely there's a legitimate non-religious way to understand what he saying, right?

I am not a climate scientist, so I cannot speak directly on the science. My take on this subject is that, even assuming the climate-crisis pushers are correct, everyone needs to calm down and take a deep breath. Breathless invocations of crisis are no way to make a careful decision based on science. Even less are such considerations a basis for doing science worthy of its reputation as an objective arbiter of truth. Scientists find themselves in a difficult situation, which Stephen Schneider captured well in a Discover interview:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This 'double ethical bind' we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both. (Schneider letter1)

Scientists are also (and first) human beings. And that means being susceptible to extra-scientific factors, like political correctness and other forms of peer pressure, as well as financial and other institutional pressures. Sometimes we can think we "know" some conclusion that our data doesn't support, and we might be tempted to stretch the results to make "the world a better place." But, as I've written before, such maneuvers are manipulations that have less to do with the discovery of objective truth than with the Baconian roots of the modern scientific project.

For too long scientists have been given a free pass (rather like clergy were in previous ages). Remember the line from Ghostbusters: "Back off, man, I'm a scientist." While being a scientist may be enough to excuse weirdness, it isn't enough to guarantee honesty.

At last month's APS meeting in DC, Princeton physicist William Happer observed that the cover-up and secrecy have deeply embarrassed science in general. In truth, this is not a bad thing. It makes plainly apparent the humanity of scientists and the fact that science, while being an amazing tool, is not an infallible institution.


1. Schneider's quotation would have been less susceptible to misquotation had he not said, "So we have to offer up scary scenarios". One has to wonder why he formulated it that way, instead of saying something like "we feel the need to."

William Happer, APS Talk on Secrecy (February 13, 2010, Washington, DC).

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Getting U.S. Space Exploration Back on Track

President Obama has recently announced a new budget for NASA with radically shifted priorities. The space agency would get out of the business of manned space exploration (leaving this task to the private sector) and focus on developing new space technologies. You won't often find me praising Obama, but I have to give him credit on this.

As I've written before, NASA is terribly inefficient at manned space. Government agencies are necessarily politicized; they tend to approach ambitious endeavors as opportunities to spread tax booty and their priorities have less to do with achieving the goal than satisfying constituencies, often for politically correct reasons, with fatal results.

Here's a short, interesting evaluation of the proposal—an interview with MIT's David Mindell, professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing, as well as professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and director of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Abortion and the War against Nature

I went down to DC for the March for Life last week. Trip preparations before and catching up with work afterward have taken up much of my time these past couple weeks.

Just ran across this excellent piece by former atheist Jennifer Fulwiler reflecting on her former pro-abortion views, specifically on the source of the anger that energized them.

My peers and I were taught not that sex creates babies, but that unprotected sex creates babies. We absorbed through cultural osmosis the idea that every normal person will have sex at some point in his or her life, and that the sexual act, by default, has no significance outside the relationship between the two people involved. In this worldview, when unexpected pregnancies came up, it was seen as a sort of betrayal by the woman's body [emphasis added]. My friends and I lamented the awful position every woman was in: Unexpected pregnancies were like lightning strikes, and when one of these unpredictable events did occur, there were no good options for dealing with them. Abortion wasn't ideal -- even we acknowledged that it was a violating procedure that was hard on a woman's body -- but what choice did anyone have? To not have the option of terminating surprise pregnancies when they came up out of nowhere would mean being a slave to one's biology.

Betrayal? But pregnancy is a woman's body working properly! So our cultural situation sets women at war with their own biology, their own selves. This conflict comes out most pointedly when Ms Fulwiler considers the disparity between our society's "two critical lists":

In every society, there are two critical lists: acceptable conditions for having a baby, and acceptable conditions for having sex. From time immemorial, the one thing that almost every society had in common is that their two lists matched up. It was only with the widespread acceptance of contraception in the middle of the 20th century, creating an upheaval in the public psyche in which sex and babies no longer went hand-in-hand, that the two lists began to diverge. And now, in 21st-century America, they look something like this:

Conditions under which it is acceptable to have sex:

  • If you're in a stable relationship
  • If you feel emotionally ready
  • If you're free of sexually transmitted diseases
  • If you have access to contraception

Conditions under which it is acceptable to have a baby:

  • If you can afford it
  • If you've finished your education
  • If you feel emotionally ready to parent a child
  • If your partner would make a good parent
  • If you're ready for all the lifestyle changes that would be involved with parenthood

As long as those two lists do not match, we will live in a culture where abortion is common and where women are at war with their own bodies.

She makes a great metaphor for the precarious position in which our erroneous culture places women:

In fact, I started to see the catastrophic mistake our society had made when we started believing that the life-giving potential of the sexual act could be safely forgotten about as long as people use contraception. It would be like saying that guns could be used as toys as long as long as there are blanks in the chamber. Teaching people to use something with tremendous power nonchalantly, as a casual plaything, had set women up for disaster.

Bullet-blocking devices may be more representative of the actual situation. In any event, the imagery of an abortionist inserting devices into the most sacred natural place, the womb, could not be any more explicitly mechanical, unnatural. (Biochemical interventions may be more visually subtle, but are no less invasive.) How could we be more blind!

As many have observed already, radical feminism is far from being pro-woman. The war on women is underwritten by our scientific culture that conceives the human relationship to nature (and by extension, all relationships) as being primarily about power and domination (yes, that's where Marxism comes from). It's not for nothing that one of early, more frank writings of one of the fathers of this "scientific" culture, Francis Bacon, is called, "The Masculine Birth of Time." Bacon writes,

My intention is to impart to you, not the figments of my own brain, nor the shadows thrown by words, nor a mixture of religion and science, nor a few commonplace observations or notorious experiments tricked out to make a composition as fanciful as a stage-play. No; I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.

That our culture is anti-woman is a commonplace of political correctness. That abortion (along with contraception) is the main weapon of the culture's war against women is PC anathema, but nonetheless the truth.1


1. Capra's 1990 film Mindwalk has an excellent exposition of the mechanism of science and the ascent of the masculine at the expense of the feminine. But notice the schizophrenia of the unmerited dig at Phyllis Schlafly (at about 40 minutes), who fought to maintain whatever is left of unique feminine privileges in American society through her opposition to the so-called Equal Rights Amendment. Several years ago, I contacted Schlafly about the quotation attributed to her and she denied she had written that "God's greatest gift to mankind is the atom bomb." It seems that for the makers of Mindwalk in this case, a political grudge takes precedence over intellectual consistency—or even integrity.

Benjamin Farrington, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1964), 61.

Note:I've started to restore the pictures to the blog, starting with the Pan's Labyrinth review. I'll continue on, beginning with the more significant graphics I've used. If you'd like me to get to one in particular, please request with a comment to that post—the system copies all comments to me via e-mail.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Hiccup in Operations

For various reasons the service I've been using to host the graphics in my posts will soon cease to work. Google now provides a free service that goes along with Blogger to which I need to migrate the graphics, but I haven't had the time to go back and edit all the graphical posts with the new links.

So the long and short of it is that you might want to grab any of the graphics here while you can: it may be a while before they are available again!

I am really sorry for this operational hiccup!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ratzinger on Aquinas on Corporeality

I've read several of Pope Benedict/Cardinal Ratzinger's books, but I think the best I've encountered is the one I mentioned in the last post (on time). Lately I've been reflecting on how time and life go together like time and energy (in modern physics) and like time and money (in our financial lives). Clearly "to save time" means to escape the needless loss of a segment of our lives. The precariousness we attribute to the moment is really the precariousness of our biological lives. Hans Jonas realized this well:

Heidegger had talked about existence as care, but he did so from an exclusively intellectual perspective. There was no mention of the primary physical reason for having to care, which is our corporeality, by which we—ourselves a part of nature, needy and vulnerable—are indissolubly connected to our natural environment, most basically through metabolism, the prerequisite of all life. Human beings must eat. This natural law of the body is as cardinal as the mortality accompanying it. But in Being and Time the body had been omitted and nature shunted aside as something merely present.

...Perhaps my physical exposure to danger [as a soldier in the Second World War], a situation in which the precariousness of the body's fate becomes evident and fear of its mutilation becomes paramount, was responsible for my new reflections.

Anyway, enough transition from time to bodiliness! Among the many gems of Ratzinger's Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life is this extended passage on the Thomistic conception of human corporeality:

The crucial factor in reaching this solution was the entry of Aristotle into Christian thinking during the course of the thirteenth century. The Platonic heritage, in many ways so useful for taking up the intellectual challenge of the biblical message, has led to the dilemma between spiritualism and naturalism just described. Of itself, it was unable to clear a path through the thicket. With the help of Aristotle, however, a non-sensualist realism could be formulated and in this way a philosophical counterpart to the pneumatic realism of the Bible could be found. The decisive step was the new understanding of the soul which Thomas Aquinas achieved through his daring transformation of the Aristotelian anthropology. We saw above that the picture of the soul which developed in definitive fashion from Christianity implied at the same time a new view of the body. In Thomas' interpretation of the formula anima forma corporis [soul the form of body], both soul and body are realities only thanks to each other and oriented towards each other. Though they are not identical, they are nevertheless one; and as one, they constitute the single human being. As both expression and being-expressed they make up a dual unity of a quite special kind. For our purposes, this insight carries a twofold consequence of a remarkable sort. First, the soul can never completely leave behind its relationship to matter. Greshake's idea that the soul receives matter into itself as an "ecstatic aspect" of the realization of its freedom, while leaving it for ever to the clutches of the necessarily imperfectible precisely in its quality as matter, would be unthinkable for Thomas. If it belongs to the essence of the soul to be the form of the body then its ordination to matter would be inescapable. The only way to destroy this ordering would be to dissolve the soul itself. What is thus emerging is an anthropological logic which shows the resurrection to be a postulate of human existence. Secondly the material elements from our of which human physiology is constructed receive their character of being "body" only in virtue of being organized and formed by the expressive power of soul. Distinguishing between "physiological unit" and "bodiliness" now becomes possible. This is what Origen was getting at with his idea of the characteristic form, but the conceptual tools at his disposal did not allow him to formulate it. The individual atoms and molecules do not as such add up to the human being. The identity of the living body does not depend upon them, but upon the fact that matter is drawn into the soul's power of expression. Just as a soul is defined in terms of matter, so the living body is wholly defined by reference to the soul. The soul builds itself a living body, a self-identical living body, as its corporeal expression. And since the living body belongs so inseparably to the being of man, the identity of that body is defined not in terms of matter but in terms of soul.

The easy vividness of Ratzinger's summary of Aquinas's doctrine makes it easy to appreciate Ratzinger's resonance with Hans Jonas (a favorite of his)! Also note how he brings out the truth of Origen's apparently erroneous formulation.

In Thomas, these insights find their determinate expression through the Aristotelian understanding of prime matter and the role of form connected with this. Matter which does not belong with some form is materia prima [primary matter], pure potency. Only in virtue of form does this materia prima become matter in the physical sense [i.e., the modern sense]. If the soul be the only form of the body, then the ending of this form-relationship by death implies the return of matter to a condition of pure potency. This reversion should not, of course, be thought of as occupying a distinct moment in time: we are making an assertion in ontology. In point of fact, the place occupied by the old form is at once taken over by a new one, so that physical matter remains as it was. However, since this physical matter is not actualized by a different form, it is something fundamentally different from that which existed before when the soul was the form in question. Between the living body and the corpse there lies the chasm of prime matter. Consistently maintained, therefore, the Thomistic teaching cannot preserve the self-identity of the body before and after death.

Matter of itself (that is, without form) has no identity, no "individuation"; it is "pure potency," as Ratzinger says following the Aristotle Scholastics. Like modern bumper sticker slogans, the medieval maxim that "matter is the principle of individuation" is often invoked by superficial philosophers without real understanding.1 Really it is form that individuates material things: the real meaning of the slogan is that matter is the principle by which a material thing's form modified. In other words, material things' forms can't change unless they have matter, the principle of change. Benedict Ashley drove this point home for me in a conversation some years ago.

This might seem to be an advantage in the case of the question of resurrection. Yet it has anthropological and ontological consequences which are strange, to say the least. For this reason, Aquinas' new anthropology, summed up in the formula anima unica forma corporis, called forth stiff opposition and ecclesiastical condemnations. At the philosophical level, it denied the identity of the corpse of Jesus with him who was crucified. Incidentally, if the body derives its identity in no way from matter but entirely from soul, which is not passed on by a man's parents, there would also be another problem here concerned with conception, with the genuineness of parenthood. This is why Thomas himself held back from embracing the consequences of his own theory and, in the question of the resurrection, fenced it in with additional considerations meant to supply for its deficiencies. Only Durandus of Sant Pourcain (c. 1275-1334) dared to accept all the consequences entailed in Aquinas' starting point, basing the identity of the risen body exclusively upon the identity of the soul. His remained a somewhat isolated voice in the medieval period. During the nineteenth century it was adopted by Billot, Michel, and Feuling.

Not quite sure what he means about the problem of the genuineness of parenthood. Except perhaps that if the immaterial soul is created (or infused) directly by God, then to what extent can one's parents be said to be the parent of that soul, which is the person himself? (Anyone know how this one is answered?)

(Also have to admire the translator's use of the English subjunctive: "If the soul be".)

Next Ratzinger turns in his brilliant way to discover the core concerns (behind the limitations) motivating the philosophical doctrines in order to do justice to them in a modern formulation.

In its original shape, the Aristotelian concept of matter and form underlying Durandus' thesis is no longer conceivable to us: the simple repristinization of a thoroughgoing Thomism is not the way we seek. The synthesis which Thomas formulated with such brilliance in the conditions of his century must be re-created in the present, in such a way that the authentic concerns of the great doctor are preserved. Thomas does not offer a recipe which can just be copied out time and again without further ado; nevertheless, his central idea remains as a signpost for us to follow. That idea consists in the notion of the unity of body and soul, a unity founded on the creative act and implying at once the abiding ordination of the soul to matter and the derivation of the identity of the body not from matter but from the person, the soul. The physiology becomes truly "body" through the heart of the personality. Bodiliness is something other than a summation of corpuscles.

Truly Ratzinger at his best!


1. I suspect that this section would have been a good one for a couple Catholic philosohers to have read (and re-read and pondered thoroughly) in order to avoid the silly assertion that "we think the resurrection involves God's reassembling at least some of the numerically same particles that once were in our living bodies (us) when we were alive—and thus it is a true resurrection, that is, a re-arising." Invoking particles (modern matter) rightfully sets them in the cross hairs of physicist Steve Barr. If they simply meant "matter" in the Aristotelian sense, they would be equally wrong, because as we've seen matter as such has no identity. Modern, quantum-mechanical matter and Aristotelian matter coincide in this lack of individuation. The irony is that we have two Catholic philosophers defending the mechanistic conception of matter (in envisioning the resurrection, no less!), and a modern physicist (himself Catholic, but one who no openly admits of being no philosopher) effectively defending the traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic view. (Another example of how the story of modern physics has turned to support the tradition, but not one Barr documents.)

Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, trans. Michael Waldstein (Washington, DC: Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1988), 178-181.

Hans Jonas, "Wissenschaft as Personal Experience," The Hastings Center Report 32: 4 (Jul.-Aug., 2002), pp. 27-35. (Quoted: 31-32)

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Institutional Roots of Scientific Dishonesty

I recently wrote about about how dishonesty is a matter of course in modern (Baconian) science (and here) with regard to the British climate memo scandal. Yesterday I ran across a post of penetrating insight on how such dishonesty can fester and what can be done about it:

Truthfulness in science should be an iron law
by Bruce Charlton, Editor-in-chief, Medical Hypotheses

The article fills in details of how the apparently altruistic motivation of Baconian science, as I put it, "easily slides from 'benefit mankind' to 'benefit my scientific career' or 'benefit a political program.'" I recommend reading the whole thing. In case you're in a rush, the post starts with a summary abstract, but for a bit more of the substance, below are a few of the best excerpts. I've added a comment in brackets.

Scientists are usually too careful and clever to risk telling outright lies, but instead they push the envelope of exaggeration, selectivity and distortion as far as possible. And tolerance for this kind of untruthfulness has greatly increased over recent years. So it is now routine for scientists deliberately to ‘hype’ the significance of their status and performance, and ‘spin’ the importance of their research.

Furthermore, it is entirely normal and unremarkable for scientists to spend their entire professional life doing work they know in their hearts to be trivial or bogus – preferring that which promotes their career over that which has the best chance of advancing science. Indeed, such misapplication of effort is positively encouraged in many places, including some of what were the very best places, because careerism is a more reliable route to high productivity than real science – and because senior scientists in the best places are expert at hyping mundane research to create a misleading impression of revolutionary importance.


So, in a bureaucratic context where cautious dishonesty is rewarded, strict truthfulness is taboo and will cause trouble for colleagues, for teams, for institutions – there may be a serious risk that funding is removed, status damaged, or worse. When everyone else is exaggerating their achievement then any precisely accurate person will, de facto, be judged as even worse than their already modest claims. In this kind of situation, individual truthfulness may be interpreted as an irresponsible indulgence.

Clearly then, even in the absence of the sort of direct coercion which prevails in many un-free societies, scientists may be subjected to such pressure that they are more-or-less forced to be dishonest; and this situation can (in decent people) lead to feelings of regret, or to shame and remorse. Unfortunately, regret and shame may not lead to remorse but instead to rationalization, to the elaborate construction of excuses, and eventually a denial of dishonesty.


Peer usage was the traditional process of scientific evaluation during the Golden Age of science (extending up to about the mid-1960s). Peer usage means that the validity of science is judged retrospectively by whether or not it has been used by peers, i.e. whether ideas or facts turned-out to be useful in further science done by researchers in the same field. For example, a piece of research might be evaluated by its validity in predicting future observations or as a basis for making effective interventions. Peer usage is distinctive to science, probably almost definitive of science.

Peer review, by contrast, means that science is judged by the opinion of other scientists in the same field. Peer review is not distinctive to science, but is found in all academic subjects and in many formal bureaucracies. When peer usage was replaced by peer review, then all the major scientific evaluation processes – their measurement metrics, their rewards and their sanctions - were brought under the direct control of senior scientists whose opinions thereby became the ultimate arbiter of validity. By making its validity a mere matter of professional opinion, the crucial link between science and the natural world was broken, and the door opened to unrestrained error as well as to corruption.


Overall, senior scientists have set a bad example of untruthfulness and self-seeking in their own behaviour, and they have also tended to administer science in such a way as to reward hype and careful-dishonesty, and punish modesty and strict truth-telling. And although some senior scientists have laudably refused to compromise their honesty, they have done this largely by quietly ‘opting out’, and not much by using their power and influence to create and advertise alternative processes and systems in which honest scientists might work.

The corruption of science has been (mostly unintentionally) amplified by the replacement of ‘peer usage’ with peer review as the major mechanism of scientific evaluation. Peer review (of ever greater complexity) has been applied everywhere: to job appointments and promotions, to scientific publications and conferences, to ethical review and funding, to prizes and awards. And peer review processes are set-up and dominated by senior scientists.

Peer usage was the traditional process of scientific evaluation during the Golden Age of science (extending up to about the mid-1960s). Peer usage means that the validity of science is judged retrospectively by whether or not it has been used by peers, i.e. whether ideas or facts turned-out to be useful in further science done by researchers in the same field. For example, a piece of research might be evaluated by its validity in predicting future observations or as a basis for making effective interventions. Peer usage is distinctive to science, probably almost definitive of science.

[Government funding of science skyrocketed after the War. With more funding, more scientists and more scientific papers; more publications meant a prospective filtering process was needed. Also: more funding alloys love of truth with other motivations. LG]

Peer review, by contrast, means that science is judged by the opinion of other scientists in the same field. Peer review is not distinctive to science, but is found in all academic subjects and in many formal bureaucracies. When peer usage was replaced by peer review, then all the major scientific evaluation processes – their measurement metrics, their rewards and their sanctions - were brought under the direct control of senior scientists whose opinions thereby became the ultimate arbiter of validity. By making its validity a mere matter of professional opinion, the crucial link between science and the natural world was broken, and the door opened to unrestrained error as well as to corruption.


Honest individuals are clearly necessary for an honest system of science – they are the basis of all that is good in science. However, honest individuals do not necessarily create an honest system. Individual honesty is not sufficient but needs to be supported by new social structures. Scientific truth cannot, over the long stretch, be a product of solitary activity. A solitary truth-seeker who is unsupported either by tradition or community will degenerate into mere eccentricity, eventually to be intimidated and crushed by the organized power of untruthfulness.


A Great Awakening to truth in science

The best hope of saving science from a progressive descent into complete Zombiedom seems to be a moral Great Awakening: an ethical revolution focused on re-establishing the primary purpose of science: the pursuit of truth.

In using the phrase, I am thinking of something akin to the periodic evangelical Great Awakenings which have swept the USA throughout its history, and have (arguably) served periodically to roll-back the advance of societal corruption, and generate improved ethical behaviour.

Such an Awakening would necessarily begin with individual commitment, but to have any impact it would need to progress rapidly to institutional forms. In effect there would need to be a ‘Church’ of truth; or, rather, many such Churches – especially in the different scientific fields or invisible colleges of active scholars and researchers.

I use the word ‘Church’ because nothing less morally-potent than a Church would suffice to overcome the many immediate incentives for seeking status, power, wealth and security. Nothing less powerfully-motivating could, I feel, nurture and sustain the requisite individual commitment. If truth-pursuing groups were not actually religiously-based (and, given the high proportion of atheists in science, this is probable), then such groups would need to be sustained by secular ethical systems of at least equal strength to religion, equally devoted to transcendental ideals, equally capable of eliciting courage, self-sacrifice and adherence to principle.


Much of Charlton's post reminded me of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's essay "Live Not By Lies." Solzhenitsyn's writing was characteristically Slavic in its directness, but equally it needs to be recalled that his living witness to the truth in suffering gave him such razor-sharp insight. In any event I think the pointed resolutions he recommends at the end of his essay could inspire similar (New Years?) resolutions for scientific honesty.

There you have it: there is no substitute for the value of transcendental truth. Only by placing this truth above all other goods is it possible to maintain scientific integrity, which after all ought to be about truth. Somehow there need to be institutional 'incarnations' of this principle (appropriately enough for today's Feast of the Epiphany).

In recommending further reading, Dr. Charlton unfortunately did not link the articles. For your convenience, here are the links:

‘Peer usage versus peer review’ (BMJ 2007; 335:451)

Zombie science’ (Medical Hypotheses 2008; 71:327–329)

The vital role of transcendental truth in science’ (Medical Hypotheses 2009; 72:373–376)

Are you an honest academic?’ (Oxford Magazine 2009; 287:8–10)


As I hinted in my comment, I am skeptical of how practicable it would be to return to peer usage. However I am eager to read more of Dr. Charlton's thoughts on the matter. He is clearly a man who has pondered these issues!

(h/t The Joy of Curmudgeonry for pointing out the blog)

Bruce G. Charlton, Truthfulness in science should be an iron law Medical Hypotheses 73 (2009), 633-635.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Ratzinger on Augustine on Time

On this day when we look back to the past year and forward to the new year, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on time. Recently I read Pope Benedict/Cardinal Ratzinger's excellent Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life. The original motivation for my picking up the book (which required my obtaining it interlibrary loan, though it's so good that now I will have to buy my own copy) was that it was recommended by Sister Timothy Prokes as a book in which Ratzinger discusses the natural world. Largely that promise has not borne out, but one notable exception is the following exceptional passage:

... we must ask how time belongs to man precisely as man, and so whether it is possible to find here a starting point for conceiving a human mode of existence beyond that which depends on physical conditions of possibility. Pursuing this question, we will find that "temporality" pertains to man on different levels, and so in different ways.

Most valuable in such an analysis is Book X of the Confessions where Augustine traverses the varied landscape of his own being and comes across memoria, "memory." In memory he finds past, present and future gathered into one in a peculiar way, which, on the one hand, offers some idea of what God's eternity might be like, and, on the other, indicates the special manner in which man both is bound to time and transcends time. In these reflections, Augustine comes to realize that memory alone brings about that curious reality we call the "present." This it does, compass-like, by cutting out the circumference of a circle from the continuous flux of things, and demarcating it as "today." Naturally, the present of different people differs, in dependence on the extent of that which consciousness presents as present. Yet in memory, the past is present, albeit in a diverse manner from the presence of that which we take to be "the present." It is praesens de praeterito: the past, present in its quality as past. And something similar is true of the praesens de futuro.

What does this analysis tell us? It tells us that man, insofar as he is body, shares in physical time measured as that is in terms of the velocity of moving bodies by parameters which are themselves in motion and thus also relative. Man, however, is not only body. He is also spirit. Because these two aspects inhere inseparably in man, his belonging to the bodily world affects the manner of his spiritual activity. Nevertheless, that activity cannot be analyzed exclusively in terms of physical data. Man's participation in the world of bodies shapes the time of his conscious awareness, yet in his spiritual activities he is temporal in a different, and deeper, way than that of physical bodies. Even in the biological sphere, there is a temporality which is not mere physical temporality. The "time" of a tree, expressed in the yearly rings of its trunk, is a manifestation of its specific life cycle, and not a mere unit of rotation around the sun. In human consciousness, the various levels of time are at once assumed and transcended, rendering that consciousness temporal in a way all its own. Time is not just a physical quality ascribed to man but wholly external to him. Time characterizes man in his humanity, which itself is temporal inasmuch as it is human. Man is temporal as a traveller along the way of knowing and loving, of decaying and maturing. His specific temporality also derives from his relationality—from the fact that he becomes himself only in being with others and being towards others. Entering upon love, or indeed refusing love, binds one to another person and so to the temporality of that person, his "before" and "after." The fabric of share humanity is a fabric of shared temporality.

When I read Confessions in my undergrad studies, I was fascinated by time. I must have overlooked the import of Confessions X because it struck me as too "subjective," and not enough about the nature of things in themselves. I did not yet realize that when we give an account of physical reality, we primarily have to give a phenomenology of human experience (at very least a preliminary one). I will definitely have to re-read Confessions X!

Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, trans. Michael Waldstein (Washington, DC: Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1988), 182-184.