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.