Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Scientific Ignorance on Display

A review article titled "Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science" in the latest issue of Science displays an illustrative sample of modern scientists' ignorance and presumption—ignorance of philosophy and presumption that science is sufficient for understanding the world.

Take this sentence for starters:

Many of the undergraduates retained a common-sense Aristotelian theory of object motion; they predicted that the ball would continue to move in a curved motion, choosing B over A in Fig. 1. [Figure 1A shows the path of a ball leaving a curved tube as a straight line; figure 1B shows the ball's path as curved.1]

I'm pretty sure that Aristotle doesn't discuss the motion out of curved tubes. Why is he referenced here?

The ignorance and prejudice in the rest of the article is more profound. Take the assumed unreality of purpose in the world:2

The examples so far concern people’s common-sense understanding of the physical world, but their intuitive psychology also contributes to their resistance to science. One important bias is that children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose. For instance, 4-year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions (“to go in the zoo”) and clouds (“for raining”), a propensity called “promiscuous teleology”. Additionally, when asked about the origin of animals and people, children spontaneously tend to provide and prefer creationist explanations. Just as children’s intuitions about the physical world make it difficult for them to accept that Earth is a sphere, their psychological intuitions about agency and design make it difficult for them to accept the processes of evolution.

Did you notice also the parallel the authors draw between denial of evolution and denial of the Earth's sphericity? Of course these statements are about children, not adults,3 though there's still the implied equation of evolution doubters with flat-earthers. Then again, perhaps we should simply be glad the author's refrained from unnecessarily impugning Aristotle here.4

Next, the article goes on to assume that belief in an immaterial soul is obviously erroneous:

Another consequence of people’s commonsense psychology is dualism, the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain.... The strong intuitive pull of dualism makes it difficult for people to accept what Francis Crick called “the astonishing hypothesis”: Dualism is mistaken—mental life emerges from physical processes. People resist the astonishing hypothesis in ways that can have considerable social implications. For one thing, debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses, stem cells, and nonhuman animals are sometimes framed in terms of whether or not these entities possess immaterial souls [endnote].

If "hypothesis" means unproven assumption, then Crick is correct (and then scientists complain about the public's misunderstanding of the word "hypothesis"!). The presumption is that there is no such thing as an immaterial soul. The authors seem perfectly unaware that science has absolutely no competence to pronounce on the existence or non-existence of anything immaterial. The presumption in beginning any scientific investigation is that we will only consider material influences. You can't disprove something by assuming its contrary. Science by defintion deals only with material things. To disprove immaterial things requires philosophy.

The endnote ices the cake:

This belief in souls also holds for some expert ethicists. For instance, in their 2003 report Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics, the President’s Council described people as follows: “We have both corporeal and noncorporeal aspects. We are embodied spirits and inspirited bodies (or, if you will, embodied minds and minded bodies)”

Implicit in this comment is that ethics, as understood by ethicists for millennia, is meaningless, and that only science, as conceived by doctrinaire materialists for two centuries, truly describes the universe. In reality, a little education in philosophy would have told them that the presumption that mental processes are purely physical is in fact inconsistent with the fact of a scientist's discovering truth about the world. Intellectual activity requires an immaterial intellect. (How can materialistic science reason about itself? Is science itself material?)

The article is a bit fairer with regard to the scientific reliance on experts.

If the source is deemed trustworthy, people will believe the claim, often without really understanding it. Consider, for example, that many Americans who claim to believe in natural selection are unable to accurately describe how natural selection works.

As the article notes in its next paragraph, people's reliance on authorities isn't unique to scientific knowledge. But, unlike many other fields, such reliance is inseparable from science.5 In a paper in The Thomist, Michael Augros discusses how science needs experts because it relies on specialized experience (i.e., experiment). Philosophy, including ethics, on the other hand relies on common experience, so, while experts may be needed to guide our philosophical considerations, every man can in principle verify the conclusions in terms of his own experience. Dr. Augros writes,

No scientist can personally verify in his own experience all the scientific theories and results upon which his own efforts depend. The philosopher, on the other hand, who does not descend to the more particular experiences of the scientist, is restricted to the investigation of those mysteries to which nature itself has seen fit to give us clues; he begins only from things that are naturally experienced by everyone. His advantage is that he need not put his faith in anyone to know his conclusions, since they rely upon no one's experience but his own. Once more, then, we have a reason that scientific knowledge of nature cannot replace a philosophical knowledge of it: a knowledge that relies on trusting someone else cannot replace a knowledge that does not.

Science requires experts. Scientists have expertise in one narrow (powerful but superficial) way of understanding the world. It's a shame when they use their expertise to demand that everyone bow to their authority about everything else.

Augros concludes his article with a worthy hope that the example of the Science article's attitude amply justifies:

We are right to laugh at the legendary philosophers with a predilection for the abstract who, out of their loyalty to obsolete theories, refused to look at the world through a telescope [i.e., Galileo's]. One hopes the day might arrive when we will find equally amusing the scientific type who refuses to remember what the world looks like without one.


1. Presumably A is intended as the correct choice because it reflects inertial motion (an abstraction from real motion: nothing really moved in a straight line, because nothing is removed from the influence of all forces). Perhaps the original article specifies the tubes' orientation in a vertical or horizontal plane (were the tubes oriented vertically in a gravitational field and presented upside-down, the curved path represented by B would clearly be correct.) But I would be surprised if it specified scale or anything else about them. What would be the answer if scale were Planck scale? What would be the answer were the tubes wrapped around the Earth's equator?

2. Were the authors purposeful in writing this article? Or are they unwitting dualists?

3. The subtext is that we scientists can stifle adult resistance to science by better indoctrinating children. Perhaps "resistance" as in "resistance is futile."

4. I debunk the idea that ancients and medievals believed in a flat earth here.

5. In fact, it's pretty clear that the authors of this paper take their knowledge of Aristotle, purpose, and the soul from "authorities." It would be welcome if they relied on authorities who actually have some expertise in these subjects.

Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg, "Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science," Science 316:5827 (May 18, 2007), 996-997. Subscription required for access.

Michael Augros, "Reconciling Science with Natural Philosophy," The Thomist 68 (2004): 105-41; 114. Available here.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Illiberality of Abortion

Is the left rethinking its position on abortion? The Times on Sunday featured a thought-provoking review article questioning the morality of using prenatal genetic testing to select whether to abort an unborn child.1

The questions may only become murkier if testing extends to traits like homosexuality or intelligence.

But Kirsten Moore, president of the pro-choice Reproductive Health Technologies Project, said that when members of her staff recently discussed whether to recommend that any prenatal tests be banned, they found it impossible to draw a line — even at sex selection, which almost all found morally repugnant. “We all had our own zones of discomfort but still couldn’t quite bring ourselves to say, ‘Here’s the line, firm and clear’ because that is the core of the pro-choice philosophy,” she said. “You can never make that decision for someone else.”

The rhetoric of “choice,” however, can take on a more troubling resonance when it comes to selecting children with new reproductive technologies, disabilities rights advocates say. “It so buys into this consumer perspective on our children,” said Marsha Saxton, a senior researcher at the World Institute on Disability in Oakland, Calif., who is an abortion rights supporter.

The article concludes with an appropriate question:

“Some religious conservatives say that they trust God to give them the child that is meant to be,” wrote Ann Althouse, a law professor in Madison, Wis., who identifies herself as an abortion rights supporter on her legal blog. “But isn’t there something equivalent for social liberals? Shouldn’t they have moral standards about what reasons are acceptable for an abortion?”

It is sad that our ruling elites long ago moved our society across the line from being liberal and welcoming to being intolerant of those who don't meet certain powerful peoples' criteria. (In the case of abortion the powerful person is often a boyfriend or husband who wants to avoid the responsibility of a child.) A truly liberal society doesn't shut the weak and defenseless out in the darkness of non-being (even non-homosexuals). A truly liberal society doesn't pick and choose whom to include and whom to exclude.

The equality of dignity that we all bear and on which our social order is premised requires that we regard every person as worthy of full protection.2 The idea that we can somehow recapture (or regain) moral rectitude while allowing the barbarity of arbitrary killing of humans is wishful thinking.

The Times allowing the appearance of some questioning of abortion orthodoxy is a welcome development. But it is extremely unlikely that these midnight doubts will produce any concrete change in the policies of abortion advocates. The real problem is that once we allow abortion on demand, there is no real criterion for whom to allow to be born and whom to allow to be aborted. The hard-core abortion supporters ("aborters"?) realize this, which is why they automatically reject any limitations on abortion (often including common-sense medical measures to protect mothers' lives): they see clearly that it's all or nothing.

Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus distilled the politically correct principles from some previous Times stories, and his evaluation retains its salience:

To abort a child who might have Down syndrome is a social duty, and the ability to detect the problem early is hailed as a medical advance. To abort a child because of a hair lip or because she is a girl may be distasteful to some but is a constitutionally guaranteed right. To abort a child because he or she might have a genetic disposition to homosexuality, however, is an act of intolerable discrimination. If morality finally comes down to drawing a line, it would seem that the line with respect to abortion license is homosexuality. As Orwell observed, all human beings [sic] are equal but some are more equal than others.

At least there's one case that stimulates some reflection on the left. It's a shame that all the endangered unborn can't claim to be homosexuals until they've safely passed the birth canal.


1. Notice the reassurance at every turn that each of the people quoted support "reproductive choice" and "abortion rights"—to make clear to the readership that these people are sane and not rabid conservatives (!) or anything.

2. This Walker Percy selection explains the confluence of two conflicting worldviews behind this radical contradiction in our elites' thought. Darwinism, of course, is proof of philosophical materialism to many people's minds.

Amy Harmon, "Genetic Testing + Abortion = ???" New York Times (May 13, 2007).

Richard J. Neuhaus, "The Public Square," First Things (April 2007), 68-69.

More on Civil Unions

One claim of proponents of civil unions is that this legal institution will provide for greater equality. Yet their practice shows that equality is not their goal. Take for example the case of two elderly sisters who petitioned for a civil union:

Joyce and Sybil Burden, age 88 and 80 respectively, have been living together in a home built on land inherited from their parents for the past thirty years. The land and house have so appreciated in value that they fear if one died first the other would have to sell in order to meet the rather stiff inheritance tax that the U.K. imposes on inherited property. Surviving legal spouses and civil partners are not subject to inheritance tax in such circumstances.

Until December 2005, the Burden sisters had no grounds for a discrimination complaint, since all unmarried cohabitants faced the same concern and the European Convention allows governments to grant special rights and exemptions to married couples. But on December 5 of last year, the U.K’s new Civil Partnership Law went into effect, allowing same-sex couples to form partnerships having the same inheritance and tax status as married couples, providing a basis for the Burden sisters to mount a discrimination claim.

Sadly, the European Court ruled against the sisters, signaling that it too is party to discrimination to promote the homosexual agenda. Advocates of civil unions desire not equality, but an ersatz marriage in order to subvert monogamy. As Stanley Kurtz describes gay-marriage advocate Andrew Sullivan's position, "Once gay marriage is legalized, says Sullivan, the monogamous ethos of traditional marriage will be transformed by the sexual 'openness' of gay unions. And that, Sullivan argued at the time, will be a good thing." (Kurtz's excellent piece draws an insightful parallel between how the infiltration of the homosexual ethos over a generation has wrecked the Roman Catholic priesthood and how gay "marriage" will wreck marriage and family.)

In the April Touchstone, Amanda Witt's "Distant Neighbors" paints a poignant portrait of her children's conversation the girl who moves in next door:

My son nodded in the direction of the house across the street, where two women were shifting around furniture and boxes in the garage. “I was going to guess your mom,” he said.

“That’s right,” the girl said despondently. “She’s a lesbian. But I am not a lesbian. No way. But listen—don’t tell your Mom until tonight, okay?”

“Why not?”

“Because then she won’t be able to go yell at my Mom until tomorrow, so we can be friends for the rest of today.”

My kids looked at each other. Here, finally, was a topic my son completely understood.

“Um, listen,” he said to the new girl. “I don’t know much about lesbians, but I know my mother. She is not going to go yell at your mother.”

“But she won’t let us be friends.”

“Why not? The girl who used to live in your house—her parents were divorced, and divorce isn’t a good thing, either, but we were friends with her anyway. And my mother was friends with her mother.”

“It isn’t the same thing. Everybody gets divorced—I mean, like duh, my parents are divorced. It’s not a big deal. But nobody likes lesbians.” We live, mind you, in the left-leaning, religion-shunning Pacific Northwest.

Then the girl began to cry. “Goodbye,” she said. “Nice knowing you. Have a good life.” My children came home, bewildered and upset.

It probably does need to be said that Mrs. Witt allowed her children to play with the new girl:

“Of course you can be friends,” I said. “But you’ll have to agree to disagree about this. Tell her you can be friends, but she cannot keep trying to persuade you that her mother’s behavior is acceptable.” They nodded.

Hopefully the Witt family provides some light to this poor child. But her prospects are unpromising.

So some of [her son's] innocence has been preserved, though a good bit of it has gone for good. I grieve for that. And I grieve for the girl who brought this unwelcome knowledge into his life, for “what chance,” as a Christian friend of mine said, “does she have?” She’s not bright, nor is she pretty; she’s from a broken home, is living with lesbians, is discontented, and “specializing,” as she herself puts it, “in being bored.” She has a lot of strikes against her and, making matters worse, is willing to embrace the role of victim.

It is all too apparent that what this girl needs above all is a father to tell her that she is lovable. Two moms don't make up for an absentee dad.

Apart from the readily apparent damage to the institution of marriage, the invisible victims of same-sex civil unions are the children. As with the Stockholm syndrome, many of these children will seek to justify their the behavior of their "parents", but many more will see the violence done to them in the name of satisfying adult preferences. The hurt won't be apparent for decades.

And then all will see how today's adults abandoned them.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Francis Schaeffer's Misplaced Antagonism

A good friend of mine, an Evangelical, lent me his VHS tapes of Francis A. Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live?.

I got a lot out of the tapes. Dr. Schaeffer's diagnosis of modern society's illness is largely correct: humanism's denial of the God-given order of the universe has indeed led to despair in the power of reason as a guide to truth and happiness. Modern man has no recourse but "flight to non-reason."

After watching all ten episodes twice, some aspects of Dr. Schaeffer's outlook still don't seem to quite fit together. The tragedy is that he fails to recognize St. Thomas Aquinas as a partner in demonstrating the reasonableness of the Christian Faith.

Dr. Schaeffer's mistake is to attribute the unraveling of the "Christian consensus" to Aquinas's philosophy and theology. He charges that Aquinas "opened the flood gates" to humanism. To a limited extent, Schaeffer is correct: Aquinas helped paved the way for intellectual inquiry and for the modern academy, which have in a very general sense led to modern humanism—that's not saying much, though: in the same general sense the invention of movable type paved the way for pornographic novels.

In particular Schaeffer charges that Aquinas taught that while the Fall damaged the human will, the intellect escaped unscathed. It's difficult to know why Schaeffer would believe this, let alone teach it: Aquinas is the standard reference for Catholic theology, and Catholic Christians have always believed the Fall's damage to the intellect. Every Catholic schoolkid knows (or used to know before the post-Conciliar crisis of catechesis) the Catechism answer of the effects of Original Sin:

Our nature was corrupted by the sin of our first parents, which darkened our understanding, weakened our will, and left in us a strong inclination to evil. (Baltimore Catechism, no. 2, q. 46)

Aquinas himself quite clearly teaches in the Summa that the intellect also suffered damage:

Accordingly these are the four wounds inflicted on the whole of human nature as a result of our first parent's sin. But since the inclination to the good of virtue is diminished in each individual on account of actual sin, as was explained above (1, 2), these four wounds are also the result of other sins, in so far as, through sin, the reason is obscured, especially in practical matters, the will hardened to evil, good actions become more difficult and concupiscence more impetuous. (ST I-II 85.1.3)

Even more peculiar is Schaeffer's insistence that Aristotle and Aquinas's focus on particular things at the expense of universals robbed the cosmos of meaning, and hindered man's ability to discover "how we should then live." When one considers that it is the disciples of Aristotle, including Aquinas and his disciples, who have been the strongest champions of natural law, Schaeffer's position appears untenable. Contrary to Schaeffer's claim, the ability of the intellect to formulate universals from sensible particulars is the cornerstone of Aristotelian philosophy.

Schaeffer is confusing Aquinas with the late Scholastics. In reality, it was these late Scholastics or nominalists who shattered the world into particulars.1 Nominalism says that the group of things I call "cats," for example, are simply a class of things the mind groups together, but that these things possess no common essence: in other words that since the intellect cannot access essences, names are simply conventions: labels lacking any real connection to essences. William Ockham in particular was notorious for exalting the power of the human will over the intellect. Ockham's voluntarism destroys any possibility of the intellect discovering the common essences of sensible things.

Schaeffer protests Aquinas's commandeering of Aristotle's pagan philosophy and his protest is not without merit: for a Christian, non-Christian reasoning is suspect, and at very least requires some purification. Aristotle's distinction is that he begins from universally accessible sensible reality and his reasoning from these dependable premises is quite sound (as a close examination proves). That Aquinas was able to defend Christian truth with Aristotle shows his general compatibility with Christian thought. Not that it is Schaeffer's position, but to deny absolutely the possibility of using non-Christian philosophy for Christian ends would be a radical disbelief in reason indeed—a decided "flight to non-reason."

Some Christians prefer to base their reasoning exclusively on revelation. This is a fine tact among believers (i.e., doing theology). The problem is that such arguments have no traction with non-believers, of which there are many in our pluralistic society. To be persuasive, public reasoning has to be based on public facts available to everyone, whereas every Christian acknowledges that faith is a gift (not given to everyone). To a non-believer, the explanation "because it's in the Bible" sounds little better than "because I said so" (the humanist position). Meanwhile, the facts of nature, such as the structure of the human person and the human family, are universally accessible, as well as agreeable to Biblical morality. This is why the people of the world could agree on the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights—a very sane document, despite the typical insanity of the body to which it is connected. The greatest ally of secular humanism is the tendency to forget our common human nature, not to mention the tendency of many right-thinking people to neutralize the power of their own arguments by insisting that all reasoning begin from revelation.

So, it's a shame that Francis Schaeffer insisted on disagreeing with Thomas Aquinas, who should be his natural ally. When allies refuse to work together their cause is necessarily weakened.


1. The major complication of modern thought is that the philosophy of many of the progenitors of modern science (like Buridan and Oresme) suffered from nominalism.

John Paul II, Faith and Reason (Encyclical Letter, September 15, 1998). "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."

Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism trans. A.V. Littledale (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1957). Among its many virtues, this book contains a penetrating analysis of the surprising relationship between late Scholasticism and the thought of the Protestant Reformers.