Monday, December 24, 2007

Keeping Silence

With everyone clamoring to cash in on Christmas1, it is difficult to shut out the noise long enough to reflect on the real meaning of this silent night.

Last month's issue of The Atlantic featured an insightful article by Walter Kirn on multitasking and how it is driving us to distraction:

Through a variety of experiments, many using functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity, [scientists have] torn the mask off multitasking and revealed its true face, which is blank and pale and drawn.

Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant switching and pivoting—energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

What does this mean in practice? Consider a recent experiment at UCLA, where researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds. The subjects’ brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus—which stores and recalls information—to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive activities. Thanks to this switch, the subjects managed to sort the cards just as well with the musical distraction—but they had a much harder time remembering what, exactly, they’d been sorting once the experiment was over.

The lack of silence robs us of the ability to be fully present to the Here and Now. To know something instead of simply touching and releasing.

Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.

The next generation, presumably, is the hardest-hit. They’re the ones way out there on the cutting edge of the multitasking revolution, texting and instant messaging each other while they download music to their iPod and update their Facebook page and complete a homework assignment and keep an eye on the episode of The Hills flickering on a nearby television. (A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53 percent of students in grades seven through 12 report consuming some other form of media while watching television; 58 percent multitask while reading; 62 percent while using the computer; and 63 percent while listening to music. “I get bored if it’s not all going at once,” said a 17-year-old quoted in the study.) They’re the ones whose still-maturing brains are being shaped to process information rather than understand or even remember it.

This is the great irony of multitasking—that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking. It forces us to chop competing tasks into pieces, set them in different piles, then hunt for the pile we’re interested in, pick up its pieces, review the rules for putting the pieces back together, and then attempt to do so, often quite awkwardly. (Fact, and one more reason the bubble will pop: A brain attempting to perform two tasks simultaneously will, because of all the back-and-forth stress, exhibit a substantial lag in information processing.)

Productive? Efficient? More like running up and down a beach repairing a row of sand castles as the tide comes rolling in and the rain comes pouring down.

The next point is a bit off the main topic of the post, but not the topic of this blog: how we think about ourselves—the model we pattern ourselves after—is a big part of the reason we find ourselves in a ceaseless frenzy of activity:

Multitasking, a definition: “The attempt by human beings to operate like computers, often done with the assistance of computers.”

...In the days of rudimentary chemistry, the mind was thought to be a beaker of swirling volatile essences. Then came classical physical mechanics, and the mind was regarded as a clocklike thing, with springs and wheels. Then it was steam-driven, maybe. A combustion chamber. Then came electricity and Freud, and it was a dynamo of polarized energies—the id charged one way, the superego the other.

Now, in the heyday of the microchip, the brain is a computer. A CPU.

Except that it’s not a CPU. It’s whatever that thing is that’s driven to misconstrue itself—over and over, century after century—as a prototype, rendered in all-too- vulnerable tissue, of our latest marvel of technology.

Funny how when we think of ourselves as a thing, we truly come to acquire the attributes of that thing.2 There is a point to the regnant thinking of our elites that emphasizes the need for role models: but what if our role model is a computer?

Recovering the Silence

As Josef Pieper wrote, leisure is the basis of culture. Only by taking time to withdraw from the activities of the world can we reflect on it and ourselves and see the direction we need to our lives to point. Pieper writes that the church (building) is to space what the sabbath rest is to time.

It seems particularly a problem up in New England where I live that people have deficient notion of the sacredness of the church (though this trend is growing elsewhere). A Protestant friend back in New York would often pray in a Catholic church because, he said, there was a silence there not present in other churches. (Yes, the silence follows on a Presence. Has an unusual feeling of "silence" ever alerted you to being watched?) Catholics in this part of the country have trouble appreciating that their quotidian conversations belong outside the Church.3 A silence should reign that allows us to hear our Lord's "still, small voice."

Only if we recover the silence, can we "hear" the Presence come in our flesh:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

(Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, a fifth-century hymn from the Liturgy of Saint James, translated into English by Gerald Moultrie in 1864)


1. Or maybe all the pre-Christmas clamor is secretly a financial penalty imposed on those who fail to recognize that Christmas begins on the 25th, along with the "after-Christmas" sales? One has to wonder how long we can make the "Christmas" season without diluting it to meaninglessness—a place in western NH had its Christmas lights up before Halloween (I'm ashamed to say it was a Catholic shrine—this diocese is particularly unhealthy). One hears "Christmas" songs by former Beatles and wonders how far we can distance Christmas from its fundamental meaning before it loses all meaning: how long can we go on being excited about being excited about... something?

2. Walker Percy writes about the transparency and malleability of the self in The Message in the Bottle.

3. Granted, there is still some notion that the church is sacred space, but it is compromised. The old people who after Mass shout the rosary across the Church to each other likewise detract from the silence—admittedly they are at least praying, though it is praying publicly what (unlike like the Liturgy of the Hours or the Mass) isn't a public prayer. Back at St. Leo's in Fairfax, Virginia, the rosary group very considerately withdrew to a small section of the church to allow others elsewhere to continue their personal prayer in silence.

Walter Kirn, "The Autumn of the Multitaskers" The Atlantic (November 2007). Subscription required for full-text access.

Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Amazing Evolution!

Just came across another example of superfluous invocations of evolution in this New York Times article:

Spines, Made Extra Curvy for Women by John Schwartz

Let me just start off by saying that, as you may know from reading this blog before, I really don't have a dog in the fight of the "Evolution Wars." Whether or not God used evolution or some other secondary cause to develop life seems in the big picture much less interesting to me than investigating the actual natures of organisms.

With that disclaimer, here's some of the article's text:

Anthropologists have long known that the lower spine in humans developed a unique forward curve to help compensate for the strains that arose when the primate ancestors began walking upright. Researchers looked for a mechanism that compensated for pregnancy’s additional burden as well.

What they found, said Katherine K. Whitcome, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard and the lead author of the paper, was evidence that evolution had produced a stronger and more flexible lower spine for women.

I don't understand why (aside from personal piety) evolution has to be brought into the picture at all. Concretely speaking, is there any difference between saying that humans developed such-and-such feature and saying that they have such-and-such feature. What value does evolution actually add to the discussion?

Answer: absolutely zero. Judging from the Times article (and from previous similar instances), there's nothing in the science here particular to evolution. It's pretty old news that women are more flexible than men. Evolution is just a buzz word that sexes up an somewhat interesting but rather unremarkable observation.1

But then there's this paragraph:

As solutions go, the extra flexibility is only partly successful, Professor Shapiro said, since women still commonly complain of back trouble during pregnancy. And that is the difference between the way that evolution works and the way that actual designers do their job, Dr. Whitcome said: nature tinkers. For natural selection to favor one feature over another, “It doesn’t have to be an ideal solution,” she said. “It just has to be better.”

That's the standard claim: that evolution explains shortcomings in somatic form. But that claim treats an organism's traits as if they were independent from each other and not integrally related parts of a whole. How do we know that the "imperfection" in spine design is a "bug" and not a "feature" for some other reason? How do we know that the "imperfection" isn't necessary because "fixing" it would wildly upset another part of the organism?

Nature differs from human designers in that it works with the whole organism. Organisms are much more perfect, more integrated, than anything humans can every make on their own. We humans have trouble even comprehending all the interconnections between the different parts and metabolic pathways of an organism. That is why artificial genetic modification (as opposed to artificial breeding) is the height of arrogance.

It is also presumptuous to declare the shortcomings in the female human spine a defect. Years ago geneticists declared DNA that didn't code for proteins "junk DNA." Now we are learning that it is far from junk. The present case is just another instance in which scientists, failing to see the use of something, declare it useless.

When will we learn that nature holds much more wisdom than we can know?


1. It would be quite another thing if the scientists traced out an evolutionary pathway that resulted in the spine curvature. But that would involve genetic and biochemical work, and the journal article in which the findings are reported is by two anthropologists, so the chance of there being any such work here is nil.

John Schwartz, "Spines, Made Extra Curvy for Women" New York Times (December 13, 2007).

Katherine K. Whitcome, Liza J. Shapiro & Daniel E. Lieberman, "Fetal load and the evolution of lumbar lordosis in bipedal hominins," Nature 450 (13 December 2007), 1075-1078.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Climate Models Found Wanting

Science Blog posted a report this morning, "New study increases concerns about climate model reliability"1:

A new study comparing the composite output of 22 leading global climate models with actual climate data finds that the models do an unsatisfactory job of mimicking climate change in key portions of the atmosphere.

Here is a provocative paragraph from the article's body:

The 22 climate models used in this study are the same models used by the UN Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), which recently shared a Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.

The news is rather timely, as Gore just gave his Nobel lecture yesterday.

Of course, this is just another example of the a Nobel Committee rewarding ideas that have yet to show their worth. The Prizes have to be awarded to the living and I think this colors the culture of the Committees to favor the hear-and-now even when none of the nominees are all that old or near death. So, the fact that the committee would honor stylish results over truth is built into its constitution.2 But then, Alfred Nobel himself was—like all of us—the product of a here-and-now culture that values results over truth.

Doubtless someone will point out the concluding line of the original journal article's abstract: "These conclusions contrast strongly with those of recent publications based on essentially the same data." But that's exactly my point: the whole field of climate modeling is so riven by uncertainty that no one can really say what to believe. Liberals may well have a point that industry should be regulated, but to use "climate change" as justification at this point is tendentious.3


1. This link includes the contact information for the story (the journal is published by Wiley Interscience). It's on a site run by the AAAS, of all organizations. Maybe this signals an openness to free discussion of climate change on their part?

2. I take consolation from the fact that awardees tend to come from the left side: receiving a prize as big and prestigious as the Nobel would tend to have a stultifying effect on one's future productivity.

3. Today's liberals could well make the point based on a just ordering of the goods of society. Unfortunately, in order to eliminate scruples about some of their favorite "rights" (e.g., to unrestricted sexual license) they've had to jettison not only the notion of the good, but also the notion of the human person for whom and by whom society exists.

David H. Douglass, et al., "A comparison of tropical temperature trends with model predictions," International Journal of Climatology (Online: 5 Dec 2007).

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Nature Institute

“Is it, then, possible to imagine a new Natural Philosophy, continually conscious that the 'natural object' produced by analysis and abstraction is not reality but only a view, and always correcting the abstraction? I hardly know what I am asking for. I hear rumours that Goethe's approach to nature deserves fuller consideration—that even Dr Steiner may have seen something that orthodox researchers have missed. The regenerate science which I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. ”
—C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

In June I took a week-long course at The Nature Institute near the town of Harlemville in New York state and I thought I would give you a report (albeit greatly belated). My overall experience was very positive.

Encountering Goethean Science

The Nature Institute engages in science after the manner of Goethe. In a nutshell, one could describe Goethe's approach as Platonic without mathematical speculation, or one could describe it as phenomenological or qualitative. An article from their newsletter lists some synonyms of Goethean science:

  • Holistic science
  • Goethean science
  • Phenomena-centered science
  • Qualitative science
  • Participative science
  • Contextual science

The course was taught by Institute President Craig Holdrege and his wife Henrike. (The other principal of the Institute, Steve Talbott, was away for most of the time I was there.) We spent part of each day learning from Henrike about the "elements" of earth, water, air. In practice, these are equivalent to the three states of matter, but concretized in the conditions of the world, e.g., most liquid in the world is water and not quicksilver or ammonia. The other part of the day we spent with Craig "in the field" observing nature firsthand. Our usual venue was the wetland entrusted to the Institute's stewardship only a short walk away. But we also retreated to the Institute to pool our observations, to discuss, and to analyze.

What most impressed me was Craig Holdrege’s aversion to mystical explanatory invocations and his commitment to objective observation and explanation. Having now seen (and participated in) a solid example of the practice of Goethean science, I understand that it really is possible to do rigorous qualitative science, albeit very difficult because qualities are so much harder to pin down that quantities. Another article from their newsletter describes the challenge well:

A new kind of objectivity. Every scientist must learn to be rigorous and objective in his or her judgments. But this is not so easy once we have rediscovered our ties of kinship with, and responsibility for, nature. It is always tempting to yield to mere sentiment or wishful thinking, and to mistake one's own soul for the soul of nature. So the demands for clear judgment and knowledge of self are much greater for the holistic than for the conventional researcher. As Owen Barfield1 once remarked, "Any reasonably honest fool can be objective about objects." But it's a different matter when, having experienced ourselves in the world and the world in ourselves, we must nevertheless distinguish our purely individual, subjective tendencies from the surrounding life of the world.

The last day Senior Researcher Steve Talbott returned to the area and stopped by the Institute. I got to talk to him for more than half an hour. You may have read some of Steve's articles in The New Atlantis; he also edits NetFuture, a periodical that explores the subtle ways our technology molds us. Steve comes from Oregon and attended Wheaton College. He was (and is still) a neighbor of Craig’s. From their conversations, Craig had him edit a manuscript. When Craig decided to start the Institute, he asked Steve on board.

Craig taught at the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf school for many years before starting the Institute. He lived in Germany a while and studied at the Goetheneum, the center of Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophical Movement. While in Germany he met and married Henrike. Henrike’s specialty is projective geometry.

The others attending the course were, as one might expect, “crunchy,” that is, interested in getting back to nature (I must admit strong sympathy, given the crass commercialization of culture and the industrialization of agriculture these days). As far as I could tell without forcing political conversations, they for the most part seemed to share the generally liberal opinions most people hold in the Northeast these days, but I was impressed by their outgoing, generous demeanors and their desire to engage the truth of the world. I picked up on no overt ideological agendas, such as feminism or communism. Almost everyone there came through some association with some work of Rudold Steiner, the great expositor of Goethean science. Steiner was the originator of the Waldorf School movement and many participants worked at Waldorf schools.

Impressions and Anaylsis

Goethe speaks of finding archetypes. Certainly he was of a Platonic mindset, which bodes well, but the great value of his science lies in its phenomenology. The human intellect has a unfortunate tendency to become satisfied with established notions and to contract within itself. Goethe’s phenomenology is a model for engaging the world and makes a superb complement to the Aristotelian philosophy of nature.

That being said, I’m not sure what to make of Rudolf Steiner or anthroposophy (his "spiritual science"). Steiner, as you may know, was the driving force behind Goethean studies, and his influence extends to the present. The Institute lies in the Hawthorne Valley, which is a hotbed of Steiner activity, and is adjacent to a biodynamic farm (an example of another movement Steiner started) and down the road from a Waldorf school. My reservations stem from Steiner's one-time association with Madam Blavatsky (anthroposophy retains many of the same esoteric ideas of her theosophy) and his rejection of many essential elements of creedal Christianity, such as the Virgin Birth and Jesus’ bodily Resurrection, not to mention his embrace of karma and reincarnation.

Still, a friend I made at the course tells me that Steiner didn't insist on people accepting his ideas in toto, and was in fact opposed to blind invocations of his doctrines (he was consistently eclectic, so to speak). Some of Steiner’s terminology sounds mystical, but may be very reasonable, e.g., his “ethereal body” seems similar to Aristotle’s “vegetative soul.” In general I suspect there are many parallels and resonances between Steiner and Aristotle-Aquinas. My friend sent me copies of a couple of Steiner's talks. One was an excellent review of how modern thought went wrong (nothing original, but excellently written) in which he spoke favorably of St. Thomas. The other was rather mystical and invoked notions like a "Luciferian principle" opposed to a "Christ principle" that combine to constitute the human heart. Ugh.

Another reason for caution is the ambiguity of language. Among the many treasures, I've found terminological imprecision to be an occasional problem in some writings from the Nature Institute (will post more on this later). As far as Steiner is concerned, my suspicion is that he is wont to play a little loose with words, as we see in his redefining "Christianity" to make himself the model Christian. Unfortunately I haven't read enough of his writings to say anything definite.

Having read and reflected on some back issues of the Institute's newsletter, In Context, it strikes me that one big difference between the Nature Institute's Goethean approach, and the Thomistic approach with which I am more familiar is the relationship of knowledge to the senses and to reason. Goetheans dwell on sense information in all its ambiguity; they have an aversion to systematizing and reason in the modern rationalist sense, and perhaps a shyness to reason in the classical-medieval sense, which prevent them from rising much above the senses (both blessing and curse).2 On the other hand, the perennial philosophic approach, while starting in the senses, emphasizes reason and "invisible" principles and uses them to critique the senses. The Goethean center of gravity is the visible, and Thomistic center of gravity is the "invisible."3

There are dangers in both approaches. A truth of faith—our fallen human nature—(but one we can also know without special revelation4) tells us our perceptions are never fully trustworthy because the way we interpret them depends on our natural inclinations, which are not what they should be. There is more to the world than what's visible, and we too easily imagine ourselves and our senses sufficient to everything. The danger of a more dogmatic approach is the mantra of our modern elites and needs hardly be reiterated here: an insensitivity to particulars, and a slothful tendency to rely on vacuous generalities.

To perceive truth most effectively, there must be a creative tension between the senses and reason. Thus there is a necessity for both approaches to the world, and especially to the natural world: the visible and the "invisible" complement each other.

In sum, I learned a lot during my time at The Nature Institute and it gave me much to think about. Like any organization, it has its imperfections, but it has a unique and valuable contribution to make to the study of the natural world: a contribution the like of which we can use much more of these days.


1. Owen Barfield was one of the Inklings (along with Lewis and Tolkien) and studied (in what sense I do not know) anthroposophy; his book Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry was recommended several times during the course.

2. Nevertheless, it seems Goetheans do allow sense impressions to critique "each other"—though to be precise this involves a form of reasoning, even if not abstract.

3. Here I'm concentrating wholly on Goethean science and ignoring the "spiritual" or esoteric side of Steiner. It must be admitted that Thomists do sometimes excessively dwell on the invisible, e.g., allowing an emphasis on primary matter to obscure the importance of secondary matter to Aristotle's thought.

4. Of course we also know our inclinations are not what they should be by the fact that human nature doesn't "work" as it should: witness the necessity to a healthy society of well-formed children, which require the parents' marital fidelity versus natural man's inability to fulfill this obligation.

Steve Talbott, "Goethean Science?", In Context 1 (Spring, 1999), 4.

Steve Talbott, "A Way of Knowing as a Way of Healing," In Context 1 (Spring 1999), 3-5.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Faith in Science

Paul Davies has an op-ed in today's New York Times on how today's science—cosmology in particular—involves a large dose of faith. He points out that the belief in ordered, rational laws governing the universe is a matter of faith. He rightly points out that this assumption originates in the Christian cultural matrix.

But from where do the laws themselves originate? The origin of physical law has a renewed salience because of the fine-tuning of the universe for life. The modern, secularist alternative to a Creator is a "multiverse" in which the laws of physics just happen to be suited to life in our part of the cosmos, but are different and inhospitable to life elsewhere. Davies rightly points out the problems in this "explanation":

The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.

This comment is spot-on, but unfortunately he stops making sense near the end of the piece.

And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

The breakdown of Davies's argument shows that he is unaware of an additional level of faith inherent to science. As I've written here before, scientific knowledge is based on specialized experience; the rest of us take on faith what scientists report to us as the results of their experiments. Even scientists' "knowledge" requires faith in a web of others' results that no one could reproduce in a single lifetime. Philosophy on the other hand—natural philosophy especially—is (properly) based on experiences common to all healthy adults. We can go through the reasoning process ourselves based on our own experiences; there is no faith involved.1 Philosophy is the "missing link" that should bridge the gap between science and religion.

Philosophy should provide the common language in the "science-religion" dialog, of which Davies is a noted participant. Until there is a common language, the only possible results are, on the one hand, shouting matches, such as Richard Dawkins inspires, and, on the other hand, religion servilely submitting to science's demonstrable domination of the sensible world. The latter is the form that this so-called dialog typically takes these days.

Were Davies philosophically educated, he would realize the nonsense of expecting physical laws to have an explanation within the universe. Nothing in the universe explains its own existence—this is a matter not of faith, but of philosophy; it requires no faith.

Furthermore he would realize that since the object of modern physics is the quantifiable aspect of natural, moving things, physics itself can never rise to the level of answering "why does anything exist?".2 This and like questions are metaphysical; metaphysics properly rests on natural philosophy but transcends it to speak of immaterial things, things that do not change.

We can all eagerly hope that Davies takes some time to learn a little philosophy. But until he does, we can at least applaud Davies's assault on the "faithless" pretensions of scientists.


1. Davies says in the opening paragraph, "In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue." Davies's piece rejects the notion that science requires no faith, but it is not clear that he sees any reason in religion, which would itself be a problem in his worldview. The idea that faith and reason stand in opposition is a caricature of the Protestant Christian conception of the relationship of revelation and reason.

2. Nothing becoming something is not a motion (motion involves already existing things), and is thus unquantifiable (not even zero or null captures "nothing", since those two concepts imply the possibility of something, and absolute "nothing" includes not even possibilities). Anything that exists necessarily is for that reason eternal and the eternal is outside the purview of modern science, as it cannot be experienced by finite beings like ourselves, either directly or with instruments.

Paul Davies, "Taking Science on Faith," New York Times (November 24, 2007).

Friday, November 16, 2007

Nanogenerators—for Good or Ill

I'm rather late reporting on this, but it's such an important development, that it cannot go unnoted. Scientists have developed a way to power nanodevices off ambient vibrations. The device consists of zinc oxide nanowires whose movement generates a tiny electrical current via the piezoelectric effect.

The salutary uses are the most obvious, and of course the ones touted by the inventor:

But Wang believes the nano-generator could be ideal for powering tiny devices, including those that may be implanted inside the human body. "Imagine self-powered force-sensors implanted in blood vessel walls, taking your blood pressure. Or generators in your shoes that can charge devices while you walk," he says.

Almost any device that could use a wireless, mobile power source could potentially use the nanogenerator, Wang says: "I have full confidence that within three years we will have something that is useful commercially." (New Scientist)

Whether or not Wang's prediction proves true, the fact of this technology marks a decisive change in the possibilities for the kind of technology we can implant in the human body. No longer will machines in vivo be limited to bulky external power supplies or the chemical dangers of miniature batteries.

But imagine the harm that could be done if someone designed a malicious device that could be implanted in your body. Perhaps a self-replicating nanomachine—essentially a human-made micro-organism. As always, technological development expands the possibility not only for good, but also for unparalleled mischief.

Kevin Bullis, "Nano-generator could power tiny devices," Technology Review (April 27, 2006).

Michael Reilly, "Free Electricity from Nano Generators," New Scientist (05 April 2007).

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Politics and Morality

In the November issue of First Things, Richard John Neuhaus has a great article on "The Politics of Bioethics." He makes a number of points that those of us advocating an objective standard of morality should keep in mind in discussing bioethical issues.

First, how should we talk about human dignity?

For that purpose, then, is the concept of human dignity useful? The better phrase is “the dignity of the human person.” “Human dignity” may suggest the collective and include efforts such as taking technological charge of the evolution of the human species. “The dignity of the human person” places the accent on the individual—although, to be sure, the individual situated in community. The dignity of the human person may entail an important, although limited, measure of autonomy. Dignity as autonomy features strongly in, for instance, arguments for “death with dignity.” Morally, however, the dignity of the human person is affirmed most significantly not in the assertion of one’s own autonomy but in the protection of others who are most subject to having their dignity violated. Therefore, in bioethics as in medicine more generally, the first rule is “Do no harm.” That first rule enjoins us to protect and maintain something that is recognized as good simply in its being.

Second, that politics is inherently a moral undertaking.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and his Politics are both discourses on morality. From them we can derive this definition of politics: Politics is free persons deliberating the question, How ought we to order our life together? The ought in that suggested definition clearly indicates that politics is (in its nature, if not always in its practice) a moral enterprise. Our political vocabulary—what is fair or unfair, what is just or unjust, what serves the common good—is inescapably a moral vocabulary. Contra David Hume and many others, it is not so obvious that an ought cannot be derived from an is. In the ordinary experience of individuals and communities, it is done with great regularity. Neither agreement nor consensus is required on all the details of “whatever it is about human beings that entitles them to basic human rights and freedoms.” People who explain the “whatever it is” in quite different ways can agree on what ought and ought not be done to human beings.

Third, that what poses as a debate is over the beginning of human life should be recognized for what it actually is: a debate over which humans the state will recognize the human rights of.

The moral question is not, as the court majority claimed, about when a human life begins. That is a biological and medical question on which there is no serious dispute. The moral question can be put this way: At what point in its existence ought we, and for what reasons ought we, to recognize that a human life should be protected in law?

On this issue, if no other, Peter Singer has it right. As the noted Princeton advocate of infanticide said in a June 20, 2005, letter to the New York Times rebuking Mario Cuomo for his confused thinking about abortion: “The crucial moral question is not when human life begins, but when human life reaches the point at which it merits protection. . . . Unless we separate these two questions—when does life begin, and when does it merit protection?—we are unlikely to achieve any clarity about the moral status of embryos.”

That moral question is also and unavoidably a political question. One might make the case that it is the most fundamental of political questions. If politics is deliberating how we ought to order our life together, there can hardly be a more basic question than this: Who belongs to the we? Although ostensibly removing it from politics, the abortion decisions forced into the political arena an issue that was thought to have been settled in the centuries of civilizational tradition of which our polity is part. Namely, that it is morally wrong and rightly made unlawful to deliberately kill unborn children.

I've only drawn out the three most outstanding points, but there's much, much more to recommend the article. The entire piece is well worth reading and is a valuable contribution to current discussions on bioethics and the right to life.

Richard John Neuhaus, "The Politics of Bioethics" First Things (November 2007), 23-28.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Needless Invocations of Evolution

Fred Reed's column in the latest American Conservative is right on the money.

Oh, the hope-draining, soul-crushing tiresomeness of it. I find in Psychology Today a piece called "Ten Politically Incorrect Truths about Human Nature," explaining various aspects of behavior in Darwinian terms. The smugness of that "politically incorrect"1 is characteristic of those who want a sense of adventure without risk. Nothing is more PC than an evolutionary explanation, unless it explains obvious racial differences that we aren't supposed to talk about.


To force mating into the mold of reductionist fitness-shopping, it is necessary to connect beauty and sexual attractiveness with fitness. This is easily done by making up stories. I can do it by the hour: Wide-set eyes improve depth perception and prevent death when jumping about on rocks. Even teeth cut food more efficiently, avoiding the metabolic burden of inefficient chewing which, in time of famine, would lead to starvation. Ready laughter clears the lungs and avoids pneumonia. Shiny blonde hair reflects sunlight better and makes it easier for men to find fertile women at a distance.

But it reeks of improvisation, of beginning with a conclusion and putty-knifing the logic.

The point here is not that this article shows evolution to be necessarily false. The point is that invoking the theory for such tenuous reasons is another example of how mindless its use has become—even among Ph.D.'s, whom one would hope would know better (but almost never do—it takes a lot of education to be truly stupid). Perhaps having cranks glob onto a theory is simply the hazard for the reigning paradigm—but it makes one wonder, since explanatory power is a confirmation of a theory, if this low quality of confirmation is largely what Darwin's theory rests on.

Furthermore, it's not clear what "natural selection" means in terms of human beings. Recall that Darwin called it "natural selection" to contrast it with artificial selection humans use to breed animals.2 The use of "natural selection" with regard to human mating patterns is completely illegitimate, unless we're going to claim that the human being who selects a mate for his dog is completely different from the human being who selects his own mate. Is the human soul utterly impotent against its "animal" urges? Is there truly no causal connection between a person's intellect and his actions, except in the case of dog breeding (and writing the theory of evolution)? These are all silly consequences of the Cartesian dualism that consummated its hold on our conception of natural world with Darwin's theory.


1. Talk about politically incorrect: check out his latest column on James Watson's recent "Freudian slip-up."

2. Stove, Darwinian Fairytales—I highly recommend this book.

Fred Reed, "Brown-Eyed Girl," The American Conservative (October 22, 2007), 35.

Alan S. Miller Ph.D., Satoshi Kanazawa Ph.D. "Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature," Psychology Today (July-August 2007).

David Stove, Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity, and Other Fables of Evolution (Encounter Books, 2007).

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Jonas on Philosophical Biology

Lately I've been reading a great book a friend recommended. It's called The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas. It really is surperb, so I'm using some of his insights in a paper I'm now busily preparing for next week's American Maritain Association meeting (which will probably prevent me from posting next week).

I've typed out some selections from the main line of the book's argument below. But before presenting those, I thought I'd summarize that argument for you first.

One big thrust of the book is establishing the continuity of man with living things, not in a materialistic sense, but to show how man is not in some utterly different ontological category from the rest of the world. The thinking is that unless we want to bracket living things as somehow subject to wholly different natural laws, we need to establish man’s continuity with the whole of the material world.

Jonas identifies the origin of the distinctly human parallel capacities to recognize truth and to act freely in the unique distance or mediacy of the human being from the world. He traces the mediacy that culminates in human beings through its development in the vegetative and animal powers of living things. The increase in organisms’ powers from vegetative to sensitive to rational comes from increasing separation between an organism and its environment in parallel with a novel and more intimate connection or dependence on the environment. Metabolism allows and requires the constituents of the living thing to be constantly renewed while preserving the identity of the organism they form. An organism, by living, asserts an independence of identity from the matter that constitutes it, in parallel with a dependence on the matter to maintain itself; thus the organism separates itself from the world while taking on a new dependence or outward directedness to the world. This is the beginning of internality that is yet open to the environment, and that even needs its environment.

Whereas in plants, the environment is immediately present, the transition to animal life brings distance between the organism and its needs, a distance which sentience, emotion, and mobility must bridge. Again we see the organism’s separation from the world along with a stronger connection to it. The internality of the organism increases, as does its dependence on its environment.

In man, emotional mediacy grows into rational mediacy through his image-making ability. Whereas animals “recognize” objects by merely comparing present sense impressions to past, humans actually form an image of every object they encounter and in fact do not see anything except through an image. The image is either adequate to its object or it is not—either true or false—and implicit in any affirmation of truth is rejection of falsehood, which requires the freedom to say “no.”

Below are the quotations I picked out. Believe me, there is much more to this book worth reading. I highly recommend it.

Committed to itself, put at the mercy of its own performance, life must depend for it on conditions over which it has no control, and which may deny themselves at any time. Thus dependent on propitiousness or unpropitiousness of outer reality, it is exposed to the world from which it has seceded, and by means of which it must yet maintain itself. Opposing in its internal autonomy the entropy rule of general causality, it is yet subject to it. Emancipated from the identity with matter, it is yet in need of it: free, yet under the whip of necessity; isolated, yet in indispensable contact; seeking contact, yet in danger of being destroyed by it, and threatened no less by its want: imperiled thus from both sides, by importunity and aloofness of the world, and balanced on the narrow ridge between the two; in its process, which must no cease, liable to interference; in the straining of its temporality always facing the imminent no-more” thus does the living form carry on its separatist existence in matter—paradoxical, unstable, precarious, finite, and in intimate company with death. The fear of death with thich the hazard of this existence is charged is a never-ending comment on the audacity of the original venture upon which substance embarked in turning organic. (5)

In this process of self-sustained being, the relation of the organism to its material substance is of a double nature: the materials are essential to it specifically, accidental individually; it coincides with their actual collection at the instant, but is not bound to any one collection in the succession of instants, “riding” their change like the crest of a wave and bound only to their form of collection which endures as its own feat. Dependent on their availability as materials, it is independent of their samenss as these; its own, functional identity, passingly incorporating theirs, is of a different order. In a word, the organic form stands in dialectial relation of needful freedom to matter. (80)

[I]n order to change matter, the living form must have matter at its disposal, and it finds it outside itself, in the foreign “world.” Thereby life is turned outward and toward the world in a peculiar relatedness of dependence and possibility…. It is important to se that this “spatial” self-transcendence, opening into an environment, is grounded in the fundamental transcendence of organic form relative to its matter, for it is this which constitutionally refers it beyond its given material composition to foreign matter as needed and potentially its own. In other words, the self-transcendence of life in having a world, with all its promise of higher and more comprehensive stages, springs from the primary antinomy of freedom and necessity inherent in organism as such. (84)

It then also follows that with respect to the organic sphere, the external linear time-pattern of antecedent and sequent, involving the causal dominance of the past, is inadequate: while mere externality is, at least can be presented as, wholly determined by what it was, life is essentially also what it is going to be and just becoming: in its case, the extensive order of past and future is intensively reversed. This is the root of the teleological or finalistic nature of life: finalism is in the first place a dynamic character of a certain mode of existence, coincident with the freedom and identity of form in relation to matter, and only in the second place a fact of structure or physical organization, as exemplified in the relation of organic parts to the whole and in the functional fitness of organism generally. With this Aristotelian reminder we may return from analysis to discussion. (86)

Where, then does that [cybernetic] model fall short? The answer can be compressed into cone statement: living things are creatures of need. Only living things have needs and act on needs. Need is based both on the necessity for the continuous self-renewal of the organism by the metabolic process, and on the organism’s elemental urge thus precariously to continue itself. This basic self-concern of all life, in which necessity and will are bound together, manifests itself on the level of animality as appetite, fear, and all the rest of the emotions. The pang of hunger, the passion of the chase, the fury of combat, the anguish of flight, the lure of love—these, and not the data transmitted by the receptors, imbue objects with the character of goals, negative or positive, and make behavior purposive. The mere element of effort lifts bodily activity out of the class of mechanical performance, and the fact that movement requires effort means that an animal will move only under the incentive of an interest. (126)

From this point of view we see wherein the real advance of developed animality lies. Its mediacy of world-relation is an increase of the mediacy which is already peculiar to organic existence on the first (metabolizing) level, as compared to the immediate self-identity of inorganic matter. This increase mediacy buys greater scope, internal and external, at the price of greater hazard, internal and external. A more pronounced self is set over against a more pronounced world. The progressive nervous centralization of the animal organism emphasizes the former, while correspondingly the environment becomes open space in which the free-moving sentient has to fend for itself. (107)

The principle here involved on the part of the subject is the mental separation of form from matter. It is this that makes possible the vicarious presence of the physically absent at once with the self-effacement of the physically present. Here we have a specifically human fact, and the reason why we expect neither making nor understanding images from animals. The animal deals with the present object itself. If it is sufficiently like another object, it is an object of the same kind. The likeness aids the recognition of the object-kind, but is not itself the object of recognition. Recognized is the present object alone as “one such,” that is, as familiar in certain properties. These, spotlighted by activation of memory traces, call up in turn their former associates, which enter as expectations into the perceptual picture and , once recognition takes place, form part of the “presence” of the object. Nothing but this is present, standing entirely for itself, though imbued with past experience. Only reality counts, and reality knows no representation. In our search, there for, for the conditions of image-making we are referred from the faculty of perceiving likeness to the more fundamental one of separating eidos from concrete reality. (167)

For the animal mere similitude does not exist. Where we perceive it, the animal perceives either sameness or otherness, but not both in one, as we do in the apprehension of similitude. (166)

The sense in which one can speak of an experience of truth may be illustrated by the situation in which one feels moved to exclaim “So this is what it really is!”—such exclamation containing a submerged, if not explicit, “and not this!” The illustration is to convey the at once emphatic and antithetical character of the truth-experience, i.e., that it stands out from the normal flow of acceptance of phenomena and against the background of error and falsehood: this background being itself an “experience” only realized in the act of supersedure by its opposite. In short, we wish to indicate an element of negation. Hence follows, as a first proposition, that the capacity for truth presupposes the capacity to negate, and that therefore only a being that can entertain negativity, that can say “no,” can entertain truth. And since the power of negation is a part of freedom, indeed a defining ingredient of it, the proposition is that freedom is a prerequisite of truth, and that the experience of truth itself is the evidence and exercise of a certain kind of freedom. (175)

The distinction between truth and falsehood, and therefore the idea of knowledge, arises only where the “wrong” perception is not simply supplanted by the “right” one but survives to be confronted as falsified with the right one; or more generally, where two terms are available for comparison, and one of them is accepted as the standard by which the other is judged. (178)

But genuiness itself comes to be discovered only with the experience of its opposite, which furthermore must be retained in the mind for comparison and contrast: the mere “explosion” of an impression by a subsequent corrective impression is not enough. (180)

The new mediacy consists in the interposition of the abstracted and mentally manipulable eidos between sense and actual object, just as on the level of animal mediacy the perception of objects was interposed between the organism and its primary environment-relation. Imaging and speaking man ceases to see things directly: he sees them through the screen of representations of which he has become possessed by his own previous dealings with objects, and which are evoked by the present perceptual content, impregnating it with their symbolic charge, and added to by the new experience itself. (184–185)

Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001/1966). —

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Greatness and History

I was talking to a friend the other day about the current trend among certain faithful Catholics to refer to the late Pope John Paul II as "John Paul the Great." There is even a "John Paul the Great University" that opened its doors this fall. It seems like an unwise trend to me and one characteristic of the narcissism of our society to pronounce on a matter better left to posterity.

Please don't get be wrong. I admire the late pontiff as much as anyone. Playing such a large role in bringing down communism might itself qualify someone as "great," but in addition John Paul II also left us with so many wonderful writings, not to mention the courageous example of his holy death.

The problem I see is that we really cannot fairly assess the value of a person's legacy for years—that is, until we really see the fruit of that legacy. To call someone "great" who is only a few years in the grave is to assume a power that lies beyond any single generation. But as self-involved as we are these days, we assume that anything that strikes us as great at this moment can only be great for all time. This is the same narcissistic age that arrogates to itself the power to name itself ("modern," "post-modern").

What's even more troubling is the undercurrent one senses among many "John Paul the Great" cheerleaders that faithful Catholics can only share their enthusiasm and that to do otherwise is to be less than faithful. It's almost as if they believe Christian orthodoxy requires the believer to surrender to the cult of personality that accreted around the late Pontiff (and that to a degree extends to his successor). Let's not take our eyes off the ball: the whole point of the Papacy is not the man who occupies the Chair of Peter, but the reverence due the office of Peter and its role in preserving the orthodoxy of the Catholic Faith.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Ecclesial Morphogenesis

The last post discussed the theme of natural development with the emphasis on "evolution not revolution": that discontunity is unnatural and severs identity. Now we examine the same principle from the opposite perspective: continuity through change.

Vladimir Soloviov, a Russian Orthodox Christian who came into communion with Rome, wrote vigorously in defense of the Papacy. Here's a beautiful excerpt that compares the historical growth of the Church to the dvelopment of a tree.

Though the transformation of a stone into a mountain is only a symbol, the transformation of a simple, almost impreceptible seed into an infinitely larger and more complicated organism is an actual fact. And it is by just this fact that the New Testament foretells and illustrates the development of the Church, as of a great tree which began in an impreceptible grain of seed and today gives ample shelter to the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air.

Now, even among Catholics we meet with ultradogmatic spirits who, while justly admiring the vast oak which covers them with its shade, absolutely refuse to admit that all this abundance of organic forms has grown from a structure as simple and rudimentary as that of an ordinary acorn. According to them, though the oak tree arose out of the acorn, the acorn must have contained in a distinct and discernible form, if not every leaf, at least every branch of the great tree, and must have been not only idenitical in substance with the latter but similar to it in every detail [like the old homonculus theory].

Whereupon ultracritical spirits of the opposite school set to work to examine the wretched acorn minutely from every angle. Naturally, they discover in it no resemblance whatever to the entwining roots, the stout trunk, the leafy branches, or the tough, corrugated foliage of the great tree. "What humbug," they exclaim. "The acorn is simply an acorn and can never be anything else; it is only too obvious where the great oak and all its characteristics came from. The Jesuits invented it at the [First] Vatican Council; we saw it with our own eyes—in the book of Janus [a dissenting account of the Council]."

At the risk of appearing a freethinker to the extreme dogmatists and of being at the same time labeled a Jesuit in disguise by the critics, I must affirm the unquestionable truth that the acorn actually has quite a simple and rudimentary structure, and that though not all the component parts of a great oak can be discovered in it, the oak has actually grown out of the acorn without any artificial stimulus or infringement of the laws of nature, but by its own right, nay, even by divine right. Since God, who is not bound by the limitations of space and time and of the mechanism of the material world, sees concealed in the actual seeds of things all their future potentialities, so in the little acorn he must not only have seen but ordained and blssed the mighty oak which was to grow from it. In the grain of mustard seed of Peter's faith he discerned and foretold the vast tree of the Catholic Church which was to cover the earth with its brances.

Though Jesus Christ entrusted Peter with that universal sovereign authority which was to endure and develop within the Church throughout its existence upon earth, he did not personally exercise this authority except in a measure and in a form suited to the primitive condition of the apostolic Church. The action of the prince of the apostles had as little resemblance to modern papal administration as the acorn has to the oak; but this does not prevent the papacy from being the natural, logical, and legitimate development of the primacy of Peter.

The growth of an organism ties back to Aristotle's discussion of the meaning of natural:

The form indeed is 'nature' rather than the matter; for a thing is more properly said to be what it is when it has attained to fulfillment than when it exists potentially. (Physics II.1.193b7-8)

Thus an oak tree is more natural than the acorn from which it grew, since it more fully expresses its nature. So human societies, like the family or a larger community, are more natural than the individuals from which they grow and who bind together to form them. Humanity fully expresses its nature in community (contrary to the Enlightenment philosophers' postulation that the State of Nature is solitary).

Similarly, the Catholic Christian Church is a more perfect expression of the Body of Christ than individual, particular Churches, but it also more fully expresses the nature of that universal Communion in its mature state than in it did at birth.

Vladmiri Soloviev (Solovyov), The Russian Church and the Papacy, trans. Herbert Rees, ed. Ray Ryland (San Diego, California: Catholic Answers, 2001), 149-150.

Personal note: I will be travelling for the next couple weeks, so posts if any will be intermittent.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Return from the Wasteland

Tomorrow on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross Pope Benedict XVI's Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum officially takes effect and makes explicit the right that all Catholic priests have say the traditional "use" of the Roman Rite (i.e., the traditional Latin Mass that traces its lineage back to the original Apostolic Mass).

Many people date the liturgical reform to the Second Vatican Council's Dec. 4, 1963 promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). But the changes actually implemented had the vaguest connection with the Council's decrees (as you can see from the actual document) or even unstated intentions (according, for example, to the recollections of someone who was actually there).1

Pope Paul VI actually promulgated the "new Mass" with his Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum on April 3, 1969. This means the current Holy Father is correcting a misunderstanding of nearly forty years.

The Israelites spent forty years in the desert before entering the Promised Land. I don't think that it is an accident that we've spent nearly forty years in the liturgical wasteland. While I certainly wouldn't have willed this period of desolation, but our Lord is able to draw good out of our worst failures. It is clear in retrospect that it was part of God's Providence: among other benefits it allows us to better appreciate the traditional Mass (we never seem to know what we've got until we lose it), as well as our utter inability to draw life from any source except that our Lord gave us through his Apostles—the Liturgy grows by evolution, not revolution.

Now I need to say that I don't believe the return of the old Mass will bring the Church to some sort of idyllic state of perfection. First, as we all know perfection is impossible this side of heaven. Second, even the Israelites after returning had to fight to take possession of their heritage.

The difference the Motu Proprio makes is that tomorrow, we can stop wandering and begin to fight. Deo Gratias!


1. Really the concrete form of the reform Archbishop Annibale Bugnini was realized according to Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, a man who was exiled in July 1975, not long after his liturgical vision was promulgated to an unwary Church. (I understand that he was exiled after convincing evidence surfaced that he was a Freemason—an avowed enemy of the Church.)

Alfons Cardinal Stickler, "Recollections of a Vatican II Peritus," The Latin Mass Winter 1999.

The Pope's Letter Accompanying the Motu Proprio

Summorum Pontificum, English translation from the Latin original.

Here's a whole blog devoted to the Motu Proprio, its consequences, and surrounding issues: Summorum Pontificum.

An entertaining and somewhat insightful take on the old rite from a convert: What I think about the "Tridentine" Mass by David Palmer.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Moralism without Morals

In a recent National Review article on the office of Surgeon General, Yuval Levin makes an insightful remark about the new American way of being moralistic but without a reference to any sort of objective morality:

The tone of surgeon-general reports makes for a telling case study in the way health has usurped the place of virtue in America's public vocabulary. Public health is the only remaining language in which to speak of vice -- an old-fashioned word that once would have been the obvious way to refer to, say, smoking and drinking. The self-righteousness that colors the crusade against obesity, smoking, and other modern sins is as near as the Left gets to religion, and the surgeon general fills the role of oracle.

Mencken once memorably said, "Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." The American elite are no longer be truly religious in attitude, but they are still Puritanical.

Yuval Levin "A Doctor, But Whose? Diagnosing the Disorder in the Surgeon General's Office," National Review LIX:15 (August 27, 2007).

Saturday, September 08, 2007

More on the Infinite

As I mentioned before, I'm reading A.W. Moore's The Infinite. (I found out about it through the webpage of a member of the Syndey School of Mathematics.) The book is much clearer than the Zellini book I commented on previously. Whereas Zellini makes a single distinction between the actual infinite and the potential infinite (which are synonymous with "true" and "false" infinites), Moore adds an additional distinction between true and false versions of the actual and potential infinites. The true versions of these he calls metaphysical and mathematical infinites.

Part of Moore's clarity comes from starting off (in the introduction) discussing the paradoxes of the infinite and defining terms.

[O]ne of the central issues concerning the infinite is whether it can be defined. Many have felt that it cannot; for if we try to define the infinite as that which is thus ans so, we fall foul of the fact that being thus and so is already a way of being limited or conditioned. (It is as if the infinite cannot, by definition, be defined....)1

Two clusters of concepts nevertheless dominate, and much of the dialectic in the history of the topic has taken the form of oscillation between them. Within the first cluster we find: boundlessness; endlessness; unlimitedness; immeasurability; eternity; that which is such that, given any determinate part of it, there is always more to come; that which is greater than any assignable quantity. Within the second cluster we find: completeness; wholeness; unity; universality; absoluteness; perfection; self-sufficiency; autonomy. The concepts in the first cluster are more negative and convey a sense of potentiality. They are the concepts that might be expected to inform a more mathematical or logical discussion of the infinite. The concepts in the second cluster are more positive and convey a sense of actuality. They are concepts that might be expected to inform a more metaphysical or theological discussion of the infinite. Let us label the concepts 'mathematical' and 'metaphysical' respectively. (1-2)

The book is divided into two parts. The first part is an overview of the historical of thought on the infinite, and the second part is an assessment of the various strains of thought. Aristotle has a foundational role in both. Moore points out that Aristotle wasn't saying that the (mathematical) infinite was false, but that it only exists potentially, not actually:

I said at the beginning of §2 that Aristotle appeared to abhor the mathematical infinite. We can now see how profoundly false such an appearance was. What he abhorred was the metaphysically infinite, and (relatedly) the actual infinite—a kind of incoherent compromise between the metaphysical and the mathematical, whereby endlessness was supposed to be wholly and completely present all at once. It was the mathematically infinite that he was urging us to take seriously. Properly understood, the mathematically infinite and the potentially infinite were, for Aristotle, one and the same. Far from abhorring the mathematically infinite, he was the first philosopher who seriously championed it. In so doing he recoiled from earlier thinking in such a way that he set the scene for nearly all subsequent discussion of this topic. (44)

According to Moore, the pre-Socratics had given voice to what was essentially the metaphysical infinite, but Plotinus first articulated it clearly and distinctly:

He called it self-sufficient, perfect, and omnipotent, a complete and pure unity, utterly beyond our finite experience. He also said that it was 'supremely adequate, autonomous, all-transcending, most utterly without need.' Sometimes he spoke of it in a Parmenidean way, implying that it had internal limits. 'Its manner of being is settled for it,' he said, 'by itself alone.' But elsewhere he emphasized its lack of limits, either exeternal or internal. Indeed, in line with this, he insisted that all our attempts to talk about it or derfine it were strictly speaking, and inevitably, inadeqaute. This, in truth, it even transcended such descriptions of it as 'The Good' or 'God'. Its ineffability meant that we had to be content with mystical insight into it. He nevertheless tried to convey as much as possible with words. And in so doing he supplied one of the first explicit identifications of the infinite with God. (46)

Moore very clearly explains the categorematic/syncategorematic distinction originated by Peter of Spain and taken up by Jean Buridan and Gregory of Rimini:

Roughly: to use 'infinite' categorematically is to say that there is something [an actual whole] which has a property that surpasses any finite measure; to use it syncategorematically is to say that, give any finite measure, there is something [another individual] which has a property that surpasses it. (51)

This distinction carlifies an important point about uses of infinite, and furthermore subsumes Aristotle's actual/potential distinction.

By way of illustration, consider the following application of the new distinction in a temporal context, noted by Gregory [of Rimini]. If I say, 'An infinity of men will be dead,' and use 'infinity' categorematically, then I mean that there will come a time when infinitely many men are dead; there will then be an actual infinity of dead men. If I say the same thing, and use 'infinity' sycategorematically, then I mean that there is no end to the number of men who will, each in his own time, be dead; there is a potential infinity of dead men. This explains, I think, why so many philosophers have thought that there was something deeper and more abstract underlying straight-forward temporal accounts of the actual/potential distinction. It seems they were right. There is something—something grammatical [cf. later invocation of Wittgenstein]. (Working with this new distinction also has the advantage that one can avoid the false implication in Aristotle's terminology, noted by Aristotle himself, that what is potentially infinite must be capable of being actually infinite.) (52)

Moore includes some provocative reactions of contemporaries to Cantor's transfinite mathematics:

[French mathematician Henri Poincaré] challenged Cantor's claim to have proved that R [the set of real numbers] was bigger than N [the set of natural numbers]. Cantor's proof could just as well be taken to establish merely that we could not devise a way of pairing off the natural numbers with the real numbers, or indeed that R was not a genuine set at all—presumably because the real numbers were somehow too unwieldy to be grouped together into one determinate totality.

This, incidentally, was something urged by the American philosopher and mathematician C.S. Peirce (1938-1914). He had independently discovered that there was no way of pairing off the natural numbers with the real numbers, but he concluded that R did not exist as a completed whole. At most it existed as something potentially infinite. However many reals had been actualized, there were always more waiting to be. A continuum, he felt, was precisely not just a set of points. It was something absolute, consisting of unactualized possibilities, cenmented together in a way that defied description but of which we were aware in experience.

I'm not sure how much credence to give these ideas, but they do seem to lead us back to Aristotle's notion of the continuum not being composed of points.

I'm still re-reading and digesting the book. Moore's advocacy of Kant and Wittgenstein's positions on the subject sound reasonable to me (from what he says), but I'm not entirely certain how kosher they are (especially Kant) and I need to examine them more closely because they have a big part to play in the second half of the book. Being a good Englishman, Moore ends (as I read him) with the empiricist (or more-or-less Aristotelian) position of denying the reality of the metaphysical infinite and affirming that while we can see things about the mathematical infinite, we cannot really say anything about it as actual.


1. Not sure this is the right way to note the ellipsis.

A.W. Moore, The Infinite (New York: Routledge, 1991). All emphases in original.

Paolo Zellini, A Brief History of Infinity, trans. David Marsh (New York: Penguin Books, 2004).

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Beach-blanket Natural Philosophy

At a yard sale recently, I bought an old copy of Hubbard's Battlefield Earth for twenty cents. "Beach" reading, perfect for summer. The characters are superficial, the plot movement often contrived, and some of the language confusing, but Hubbard does a good job building that momentum that gets you to turn to the next chapter (or part).

One of the main "science" premises of this science fiction novel is the mysterious workings of the antagonists' teleportation system:

Prior to this [discovery], it was thought that teleportation consisted of converting energy and matter to space and then reconverting it in another place so it would assume its natural form. But this had never been proven. En [the discoverer] had apparently found that space could exist entirely independently of time, energy, or mass and that all these things were actually separate items. Only when combined did they make up a universe.

Space was dependent only upon three coordinates. When one dictated [!] a set of space coordinates one shifted space itself. Any energy or mass contained in that space thereupon shifted with that space shift.

In the matter of a motor such as this freighter had, it was just an enclosed housing in which space coordinates could be changed. As the coordinates changed, the housing was forced to go along, and this gave the motor power.... A series of coordinates were progressively fed to the main motor and it self went forward or backward as the housed space occupied each set of coordinates in turn.

Teleportation over vast distances worked the same way. Matter and energy were pinned to the space, and when it was exchanged with another space, they simply changed too. Thus matter and energy would seem to disappear in one place and appear in another. They didn't actually change. Only the space did.

There are so many things wrong with this description that it is hard to know where to begin. Now of course, no one takes the "science" mumbo-jumbo in science fiction novels seriously (I mean most of these things technically don't even qualify as novels1), but for entertainment purposes, let's look at it more closely.

In the first place, this idea of absolute space (apart from an absolute time) was conjured up by Newton to facilitate his mechanics, which was based on Descartes's analytic geometry. It's took us centuries to get over this naive starting point, but as we all know, the consequences of Einstein's notions of space and time continua forming a unified space-time continuum were experimentally confirmed by the time Hubbard wrote his novel in 1982. In his special theory of relativity, Einstein showed how the dilation of time intervals and the correlative contraction of spatial dimensions at speeds approaching the speed of light explain many phenomena, most notably the constancy of the speed of light for all observers, however they are moving. So not only are space and time interdependent, but also there can be no absolute coordinate system---what would define the origin?

Further, in his general theory of relativity, Einstein showed that the geometrical structure of this spacetime depends on nearby masses. So space exists relative to mass-energy as well as time.

But the dubiousness of the idea goes deeper than physics. Coincidentally, I've also been reading A.W. Moore's The Infinite. Of course one of the puzzles of infinity is whether a magnitude or continuous quantity can be composed of discrete, infinitesimal points. Cantor's transfinite mathematics notwithstanding2, it is pretty clear that elements with length zero can never add up to a finite length. Philosophically speaking, using a teleporter to move through a continuum requires more sophistication (infinitely more!) than teleporting across the universe. That means that the teleportation motor that Hubbard describes cannot move continuously, but has to move itself through discrete points. Perhaps the resulting vibration is the reason the engines make such noise when "dictating" themselves through space. Of course, if space exists independent of the rest of the universe, then one has to wonder what sort of forces would allow one to shift it.

Hubbard's novel is interesting also for how it speaks about his personal philosophy, a philosophy that undoubtedly colors the doctrine of the Church of Scientology, which he founded. It shows a naive trust in human nature so characteristic of the 20th century. But in addition, Hubbard also displays a distrust of government and a simple faith in the abilities. More interestingly, Hubbard has at least a rudimentary respect for nature: his villains, a race of aliens called the Psychlos, have been altered at birth to suit arbitrary societal demands (working hard, preserving technological secrets) that also make them sadists.

Wikipedia says that Punch (April 4, 1984) sarcastically commended Hubbard's "excellent understanding of evil impulses, particularly deviousness, which helps with the plot, and [he] is well-enough aware of his weaknesses not to dwell upon frailties like love, generosity, compassion." I might add that Hubbard's detachment from humanity is reflected in his naive, purely quantitative conception of greatness. Beyond the 1000-page length of the book, the Psychlos are much bigger than humans (10-ft tall and weighing 1000 lbs each) and the greatness of their empire is reflected the vastness of the numbers that define it. As Hubbard writes,


The homeplanet of two hundred thousand worlds.

The center of an empire that had ruled and ruined sixteen universes over the period of three hundred and two thousand years.3

Wanna spice up your novel with more awe-inspiring bad-guys? Just add zeros!


1. A novel in the usual understanding centers around the development of a character. The cover of my copy of the present work is a painting in bold primary colors of a blond, bearded bare-chested man (physique of a body builder) firing two futuristic guns, in the background angular spacecraft zooming around (see the book homepage: In this case it seems you can judge a book by its cover. Tragic little of science fiction explores characters with any depth, though later writers have sought to overcome this shortcoming by introducing sex scenes, as if meaningless couplings add human depth! At least Hubbard refrains from the latter.

2. Cantor showed that there are (infinitely) more irrational numbers between any two rationals than there are rationals on the real number line. But his failure to show that the continuum is the next infinity bigger than the rationals leaves an indefiniteness to the place of the continuum in Cantor's hierarchy of transfinite numbers. More on this later.

3. P. 899. Somehow their tremendous evil does nothing to destablize their society.

4. Looks like Battlefield Earth is Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's favorite novel! Just the thing to read while you're having your hair blow-dried.

L. Ron Hubbard, Battlefield Earth: A Saga [!] of the Year 3000 (Los Angeles: Bridge Publications, 1984), 187-8.

A.W. Moore, The Infinite (Routledge, 1989).

Friday, August 10, 2007

Astronomy, Global Warmth, and Trees

While technically we're reaching the end (tomorrow) of the dog days, I've always considered August as a whole to be the warmest month of the year. The "dog days" originate in the ancients' idea that Sirius, in the constellation of Canus Major, the large dog, since it is the brightest star in the sky after the Sun, also heats the earth. In late summer the rising and setting of Sirius and the Sun together was thought to produce extra-hot weather.

Speaking of weather (and climate), there was an excellent article in First Things about global warming: "The Politics of Global Warming" by Thomas Sieger Derr. The entire article is excellent, but I can't reprint the whole here, so I'm at pains to excerpt the best part. The overarching problem is censorship, of which Derr cites several outrageous examples. A couple of the tamer remarks: "[Dissenters'] articles are denied publication in Science and Nature, those two so-called flagship science journals of high reputation despite some embarrassing lapses.... Newspapers who seek balance in their reporting are told that they are doing a disservice to the public, to truth, and to the survival of the human race." It's ironic that censorious environmentalists cite non-scientific motivations ("being in the pay of the oil companies") to explain away the opposition, but it is really they who have extra-scientific motivations: how else would they have formed their prejudiced conclusion that global warming must be anthropogenic? It's a matter of faith for these people.

There are plausible alternative explanations to the planet's warming climate that aren't allowed to be heard. Here is one:

So what’s going on? There is a significant body of scientific opinion that finds the sun to be the principal climate driver. The sun’s output is variable and complex, more and less intense at different periods. A German team has shown an almost perfect correlation between air temperatures and solar cycles for the past 150 years. A Danish team likewise has constructed a multi-era match of solar activity (measured by sunspots) to global temperatures. Nigel Weiss of Cambridge University, a mathematical astrophysicist and past president of the Royal Astronomical Society, also correlates sunspot activity with changes in the earth’s climate. Because solar activity is cyclical, he expects that a downturn is coming and will usher in a cooling climate for earth in, maybe, three decades. Actually, global average temperature seems to have plateaued since 2000, though it is probably too soon to expect the downturn to have begun. Still, Richard Lindzen, a distinguished atmospheric physicist at MIT and a leading doubter that human activity is driving warming, thinks the odds are about 50 percent that the earth will be cooler in twenty years—due to natural cycles.

It may or may not be significant, but it is suggestive, that NASA’s instruments calculate that Mars, Jupiter, Pluto, and the Titan moon of Neptune are warming, suggesting a solar-system-wide phenomenon. To be sure, this is not hard evidence; other factors (axis tilt and wobble on Mars, for instance) may be a cause. Still, it may be a clue to what is happening here on our planet.

We think so much of ourselves and our technological accomplishments that we forget that nature has her own dynamics that we must respect, which means not only that we must refrain from meddling unnecessarily but also we must avoid underestimating her power. For all the braggadocio about science (Copernicus) having put man in his puny place in the universe1, it seems that we are more self-centered than ever.

But regardless of what we think of nature, we still need to foster open consideration of all scientific possibilities.

Some caveats are in order. Human activity may add something to the natural cycle, though how much is hard to tell. I have seen a paper that estimates the human contribution at 3 percent and another that gives it at 0.28 percent, for an almost undetectable effect on climate. The principal greenhouse gas, some 97 percent of the total, is water vapor, which leaves little for CO2 and other trace gasses. Scott McIntosh, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, says that warming caused by CO2 compared to the effect of solar magnetic fields is like a flea’s contribution to the weight of an elephant.

We do know, however, that atmospheric emissions can affect climate—for example, the serious consequences of the ash cloud thrown up by volcanic eruptions; so perhaps there is something to the greenhouse-gas theory. People can also argue about the historical record and try to modify the data that shows natural climate cycles. There may be problems with the sun theory; climate is also affected by ocean currents, meteor impact, the tilt of the earth’s axis, cosmic rays, precipitation systems, and other factors. And so on. Those of us who are doubters will not complain when we in turn are doubted. Debate is healthy and must not be choked off.

Indeed, free discussion of the issue is essential. We must eschew the "faith-based" approach that censorious environmentalists insist on.

The Miracle of Trees

In a matter tangentially related, let me suggest that one long-term solution for summer heat is planting more trees where you live and work. (No, I'm not touting this as the solution to global warming, just the solution to local warming.)

Let's forget about the aesthetic value of trees, they're simply a practical solution to the overwhelming summer heat of cities and other inhabited areas. Think about it: when the sunlight hits a city there aren't many places it can go. No matter how much you reflect back into space, a good fraction of the solar energy will be absorbed, usually by asphalt, and released as heat into the air (most noticably at night). Trees do more than just block the solar energy and produce shade, that is, they don't simply shift the energy elsewhere. Rather trees capture the solar energy. Instead of re-radiating heat, trees turn the sun's energy into plant structure (and along the way give off oxygen, which is always nice to have). The sunlight is not simply converted to heat or stored, but converted into something entirely different. And the great thing about deciduous trees is that they shed their leaves in fall, allowing the scarce winter sunlight to reach the ground. All this happens almost automatically—naturally! What elegance!

The "coolest" use of trees I've seen is in Malaga, Spain. The wide avenues are completely covered by a canopy of enormous shade trees. That's a way to cool a city that requires very little human intervention (only people to maintain the trees) and is powered by the very energy that needs to be dissipated. Contrast this elegance with the ubiquitous ham-fisted technological solution: the air conditioner. A/C simply moves the heat from one place to another (typical superficial solution: just shifting the problem somewhere else)... and requires energy input to do so.

What are the obstacles to more trees? The problem is that for individuals plunking down the money for an air conditioner at the nearest Walmart is much easier than controlling the number of trees in their workplace or apartment-dwelling. Planting trees is a more radical solution and requires more societal coordination. Private individuals are free to do so on their own properties. Everyone in a city or town shares the same air, but everyone must individually bear the burden of caring for his own trees. The tragedy of the commons is all too real here. To have an effect on local temperature, we need a large number of people unafraid of bearing this burden for their locales and looking to the elegant, natural solution to keeping cool in summer: plant trees and stay cool.


1. Actually in the Ptolemaic universe, man wasn't so much at the center as at the bottom: the earth was a cosmic sump, and the truly excellent things were exalted in the aethereal trans-lunar heavens. (This is why Dante put the devil at the center of the earth—because it's the lowest, most dishonorable place.)

Thomas Sieger Derr, "The Politics of Global Warming," First Things (August/September 2007), 17-19. Subscription required.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Checking in

I've been MIA for over a month now. I apologize for not at least checking in. The two conferences I attended last month gave me a lot to think about, plus I've been busy revising a paper and working on grant applications (gotta eat, you know). And for some unnamable reason I haven't been able to bring myself to log into blogger....

I'm hoping to post again before the end of the summer. Until then... hope you're enjoying a great one!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A Divine Materialism

I've been reading the articles for the Institute for the Study of Nature's Summer Seminar. Certainly one of the most provocative that I've read so far is "Protein Folds as Platonic Forms," a 2002 paper by New Zealanders Michael Denton, Craig Marshall, and Michael Legge.

The article begins with an historical overview: biologists before Darwin believed organic forms to be eternal givens of nature: "Form came first and function was viewed as a secondary and derived adaptive feature" (326).

In contrast, the Darwinians (ironically) adopted Paley's watch metaphor: the organism as a machine, i.e., contingent order imposed from without. While the creationists emphasized God's work in imposing order on matter, the Darwinists replaced the Divine Designer with chance mutation and natural selection.

It's difficult to imagine a proto-lifeform reproducing itself before the cell, so chance locked in by reproduction isn't plausible in the case of life's original coming-to-be (the progenitor of the first cell):

The only area of modern biology where a strong deterministic and naturalistic element is still evident is the ‘‘origin of life’’ with many researchers viewing life’s origin as an inevitable and determined end of planetary and cosmic evolution (Kenyon & Steinman, 1969; Lehninger, 1982; De Duve, 1991; Morowitz et al., 2000; Sowerby et al., 2001). (329-330)

The Denton group's project is to extend this determinism beyond the origin of life, to show that the forms of proteins are determined by the natural laws of physics and chemistry, and not by the Darwinian mechanism of random mutation and selection:

Here we argue that in another important area of modern biology, one related to the origin of life, that involves the evolution and origin of one of the most important classes of complex biological forms—the basic protein folds — the pre-Darwinian concept of organic forms as ‘‘built-in’’ intrinsic features of nature determined by natural law provides a more powerful explanatory framework than its selectionist successor.1 (330)

The data show that proteins folds come in only about 1000 different natural kinds. These forms are determined from within, not from outside by the contingent choice of an intelligence or natural selection. In other words, the folding motions of proteins are natural to their materials, not artificially or violently imposed.

So you can see where this is going, I'll cut to the "money quote" from further on in the paper:

For the lawful nature of the [protein] folds provides for the first time evidence that the laws of nature may not only be fine tuned to generate an environment fit for life (the stage) but may also be fine tuned to generate the organic forms (the actors) as well, in other words that the cosmos may be even more biocentric than is currently envisaged! (338)

In other words, matter is pre-determined to bring forth life; the living order of the universe was front-loaded.

More Details

There's a lot more in this paper to recommend it, much more than I can capture in a single post. Here's a great quotation: "Natural forms are robust, contingent artificial forms are fragile." (333) The authors contrast a polypeptide's natural gravitation to its energy minimum with the contigent order of a watch or a Lego construction. While a perturbed natural form settles back into its minimum like a marbel settles into the bottom of a bowl, a perturbed artificial form usually loses its function.

The authors also note that that protein forms have a degree of independence from what they're made of:

The fact that in many cases where the same fold is adapted to different functions, no trace of homology [sameness] can be detected in the amino acid sequences [that compose it], suggesting multiple separate discoveries of the same basic structure during the course of evolution, further reinforces the conclusion that the folds are a finite set of ahistoric physical forms. (332)

This manifests what Robert Laughlin calls "protection": that the behavior of macro-phenomenon is unaffected by its particular micro-dynamics.

A Telling Contrast

It's interesting to contrast this conclusion with the divided Intelligent Design approach of Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards in The Privileged Planet. Gonzalez and Richards tried to show that while the universe is "fine-tuned for life and discovery," life's organization didn't arise by necessity. They are walking a fine line: on the one hand, they want to show how God created the world to be good for life, but on the other hand, they don't want life to be the natural outcome of creation: "for a pattern to reliably indicate design, it will need to be relatively independent of the event or structure in question" (299).

But why do they trouble to walk this line? A passage from the book explains their fear:

Objection 13: You haven't really challenged naturalism. You've just challenged the idea that nature doesn't exhibit purpose or design.

It's possible to be both a naturalist and to admit design in nature. In fact, in the ancient world, both Aristotelians and Stoics did just that. Perhaps, for instance, design is somehow an inextricable part of an eternal cosmos, like matter and energy. We can't conclusively rule this out. The problem in our modern setting is that this strategy would require an essentially pantheistic view of nature that most naturalists deny. A cosmos that includes design and purpose—as well as chance, matter, and natural law—is quite different from "nature" as most modern naturalists understand it.

So they're afraid of "pantheism." Notice that they don't and can't rule out what they call "pantheism"; they just say that it's not a concern in today's world. It's unfortunate that they're too busy responding to exigent concerns to look more deeply into the full truth of the matter.2 And of course, pantheism is basically what Carl Sagan's Cosmos advocates, albeit without an explicit belief in purpose or design3. Furthermore, why do they oppose design and purpose with natural law? Doesn't natural law express purpose? The second paragraph of the passage is a little better, but still goes astray:

Moreover, current Big Bang cosmology discourages the view that the cosmos is eternal, which is necessary if design is coextensive with matter, time, and natural law (note also that law is not iself a material entity, nor is it a causal agent). A causal agent that somehow transcends the cosmos is a much more natural explanation for the Big Bang and the resulting physical universe we know than are purely immanent patterns of design. But either is a better explanation than the currently popular view that the physical universe is all there is, was, or ever shall be [opening line of Sagan's Cosmos!], and that chance and impersonal necessity exclusively explain its existence. (329, emphasis added)

The first sentence about law not being a causal agent is excellent. The highlighted sentence, on the other hand, shows a profound ignorance of philosophy. The use of the word "natural" is wrong on a couple levels. First, nature is an immanent source of motion and rest. Second, they make it sound as if God were a natural agent, when the whole philosophical point of invoking God is that the Existence of everything requires a source in a Agent that derives its Being from nothing else—in other words, a cause so completely unlike the changing world we see because it doesn't receive its being or motion from outside itself. Of course they're using "natural" loosely to mean reasonable. They fail to realize that even if the universe is eternal and all of its order completely immanent, it still requires a God to explain that order, as well as the existence of the universe in general. Philosophically speaking, the God (of the philosophers, not necessarily of revelation) is the only explanation possible.

In sum, ID proponents are afraid of pantheism, though it's not clear that they even understand what it is well enough to distinguish it from natural law, or purpose and design for that matter.


Three different views discussed here can be separated by the source of order:
1. From chance (Darwinism)
2. From intenvention by an intelligent agent (ID)
3. From within (Denton, et al.)

As we've already seen, all three of these require an Intelligent Designer, one who truly transcends nature. The ID folks are afraid of attributing too much self-organization to nature because they are frightened of pantheism—as if God wouldn't have to be responsible for whatever order the universe has through whatever mechanism! Contrary to the ID claim, there is no opposition between intelligence and law; laws require a Lawgiver. Contrary to the Darwinist claim, "chance" operates according to a law, which also requires an intelligence.

As Francis Bacon wrote so wisely in one of his Essays, "A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." It is only the philosophical ignorance of the Darwinists that allows them to claim that chance obviates the need for God. The irony is that the ID approach feeds off this philosophical ignorance that "inclineth man's mind to atheism."

The Darwinists deny that God is necessary to make the "watch" of creation (Hence Dawkins's blind watchmaker). The ID crowd repudiates the deniers, but in doing so, they've imbibed the atheistic materialists' rather diminutive definition of God: a god who doesn't so much create matter as manipulate already existent matter.

When it comes down to it, it's impossible to devise a scientific scenario that doesn't need a Creator (science can't say anything about Being in itself). Intelligent design says that the order in the universe that can't be attributed to chance or law should really be attributed to an Intelligent Designer (God). There's nothing wrong with this belief in itself, but by denying that God can work through chance or law it sections off an unnecessarily small territory for theism—a territory that actual experience of the world seems to be chipping away.

The work of Michael Denton and his collaborators shows that at least some of the order of living things is native to the matter that constitutes them. Science cannot speak to the ultimate source of this order, but natural philosophy tells us that the source cannot be natural, but what men call God.


1. I've omitted references from this and all subsequent quotations.

2. It is sad that an organization like Discovery Institute with such a noble purpose tends to take such short-sighted approaches.

3. There's actually a whole Wikipedia discussion on Sagan and pantheism.

Michael J. Denton, Craig J. Marshall and Michael Legge, "Protein Folds as Platonic Forms," Journal of Theoretical Biology 219 (2002), 325–342

Michael J. Denton, et al., "Physical law not natural selection as the major determinant of biological complexity in the subcellular realm," BioSystems 71 (2003), 297-303.

Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards, The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2004).

Note: Next week I'll be traveling. I don't know what my network access will be like, but I may be unable to post.