Sunday, December 27, 2009

Machines vs. Biomachines

Last week I went with my father and brother to see James Cameron's Avatar—in 3D no less. I have to say it was a well made film. The visuals were amazing and the plot well drawn if cliché: highly entertaining. The characters weren't all that deep, but then one doesn't see an action film for deep characterization. Technically this is what a Hollywood action film should be. (No spoilers in this post, with the exception clearly labeled below of the single paragraph on the final scene.)

From a philosophical point of view however, the film was highly deficient. Conservative commentators will no doubt remark on the rather overt environmental, anti-capitalist, and even anti-human message of the film.1 (As one might expect from Hollywood, there are even a few allusions to U.S. tactics in current Middle East conflicts.) Frankly if the cruelty in the service of greed depicted in the film were typical of humans, it would be rather difficult to be pro-human.

But below the message about the relationship of rational (humanoid) creatures to their environment is a subtler message about their relationship to the world, in particular to their bodies. The human-wielded machines are clearly departures from nature, but Cameron's conception of "nature" is a far more insidious danger to the natural world.

The film sets out a conflict typical in science fiction: an advanced, technological civilization attacking a primitive, nature-loving society.2 The humans are exploring exoplanet Pandora first of all to exploit its mineral wealth, but secondly to scientifically investigate its flora and fauna, including the indigenous Na'vi people. The main protagonist, Jake Sully, is a veteran marine (now paraplegic) sent to take the place of his recently deceased twin brother, who was part of a scientific mission to Pandora. The planet is hostile to humans, including an unbreathable atmosphere, so the scientists explore through remote-control "avatar" bodies. The bodies need to be hybrids of indigenous Na'vi and the human operator/driver (the actual words used in the Pandorapedia) so that a mental link can be established for full immersion into the Na'vi body's world. (The genetic hybridization makes it plausible for each avatar body to physically resemble its driver, conveniently linking the bodies/characters in the audience's mind.)

So effectively, these bodies are puppets. Immersive puppetry has disturbing consequences brilliantly spelled out in Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich. Naturally what is true of immersive puppetry extends to the relationship between our own (human) bodies and souls: our bodies aren't really "ours" in the sense of being essentially connected (one body-one soul: anima forma corporis), but "ours" in the sense of possession, that is, demonic possession. Likewise, Avatar has a strong theme of mind-body dualism: thanks to modern science, bodies are somehow interchangeable and what defines a person is the untouchable, invisible and wholly transcendent mind or "personality." Cameron conceives of ourselves as having very little to do with our particular bodies: really our identities must have a broader corporeal basis than a few DNA similarities.

It would seem that the film is opposing nature and technology: humans use mechanistic technology, while Pandorans are close to nature. But look again. The "nature" of this world is likewise created in the image of the machine. For one the neuronal "linkages" between the Na'vi and the mounts (direhorses, mountain banshees) via the Na'vi rider's queue and the mounts' antennae is a simple reflection of the linkages that typify the internet age. The connection between the mount and the rider is different from that of the Amplified Mobility Platform (AMP) suit and its operator (cf. the power loader in Cameron's Aliens) only by being through neurons instead of mechanical sensors and electronics.

Pandoran bodies are likewise similar to machines. The mountain banshees have "air inlets, or spiracles, face forward at the front of the chest cavity, like the engine intakes of a jet fighter" with "unidirectional flow, venting aft through gill-like slits." The Na'vi are about twice the height of humans. It would be reasonable to attribute this fact to gravity half as large as Earth's, but the gravitational difference makes no noticeable visual difference to physical motion in the film. To overcome the scaling problem and make such oversized and extraordinary creatures structurally plausible, Cameron invokes "naturally occurring carbon fiber" to strengthen the bones of Pandoran animals.

Nature seems to take a back seat to politically correct doctrine as well. In Na'vi society, both women and men participate in the warrior culture. One has to wonder who takes care of the children (ironically, the ones whose lives the humans are supposedly so careless about late in the film). Of course it is possible that the grandparents or other relatives care for the children. But still, has it ever been known for a primitive society to disregard sex roles? If anything these differences tend to be more pronounced in more primitive societies: childbearing here is essential to community survival. It is only rich, "advanced" societies that can (apparently) afford to blur sex roles.

**SPOILER** Most morally troubling is the final scene, in which Jake, through the power of Eywa (the Na'vi diety) in the sacred tree, "uploads" his consciousness into his avatar body.3 Note that, unlike the earlier similar attempt with Dr. Augustine, Jake is not dying. Clearly then in this transfer, Jake (his body) is put to death so that his "mind" can "live on" in the Na'vi dummy. Notice that Jake's only physical problem is his paraplegia. Aside from the euthanasia in the simple sense of putting someone to death, there is a disturbing overtone that a handicapped person's life is less worthy of living.4

The final verdict is the movie's opposition of machine vs. nature is a false facade. The "nature" the film presents is a mechanical reconception of nature along mechanical, dualistic lines. The result is a technological view of the world as infinitely open to human manipulation and a consequentialist take on ethics.

Now, one might object that the film is surely to be understood as a work of fiction and not meant as a reflection of reality, especially with the world of the film clearly a fantastic, mechanical playground of the imagination. Whatever the intention, the photorealistic computer imagery, not to mention the 3D and souped-up audio undermine any audience detachment. Art, but particularly visual art, is very good at forming the imagination, especially of children, but very much of adults as well. Given the widespread currency of mind-body dualism, this film can only cement the dominance of this paradigm into our cultural mindset.


1. Similar to the "straining a gnat and swallowing a camel" of criticizing the lyrics of rock music while passing the music itself.

2. Here is an insightful (if politically correct) piece on how the film represents a privileged white male perspective. Speaking of PC, the MPAA rating says, "Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking." Yes, it's fine to saddle young people with a fallacious worldview that it will make it impossible for them to find happiness—just as long as they don't smoke!

3. From an Aristotelian perspective, it seems nearly inevitable that the driver would eventually "go native"—that the soul is the form of the body means it's not so much our souls that control our bodies (as if from far away), but our bodies and their senses, desires, and habits that dominate our souls, that in some sense constitute our souls. To be immersed in a world is to take that world as real.

4. Equally, Jake's paraplegia could also be a symbolic statement about the human condition, one that feeds into a gnostic view of the body as a prison. Such a view would explain Cameron's anti-Christianity, as evidenced by his 2007 film The Lost Tomb of Jesus.

James Cameron, Avatar (Twentieth Century Fox, 2009).

Update January 20, 2010: David Brooks has an insightful and superbly written piece on the film in the Times: "The Messiah Complex." Here's one particularly well written passage: "The peace-loving natives are at one with nature, and even have a fiber-optic cable sticking out of their bodies that they can plug into horses and trees, which is like Horse Whispering without the wireless technology. Because they are not corrupted by things like literacy, cellphones and blockbuster movies, they have deep and tranquil souls." The bottom line:

[The White Messiah fable the film embodies] rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

I hope to post a philosophical analysis of Avatar in the next few days. In the meantime, enjoy a blessed celebration of our Lord's Nativity!

Just a reminder: the world may tear down its Christmas decorations tomorrow, but Christmas is more than a single day:

  • The Octave of Christmas ends January 1 with the feast of Mary's Divine Maternity;
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas end on January 6, the traditional feast of the Epiphany, which this year happens to fall on the same day in the new calendar;
  • The Christmas season ends with the feast of the Baptism of our Lord, January 10 this year.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Baconian Temptation

Last post I discussed how in Baconian (i.e., modern) science, truth takes a back seat to useful production. It recently occurred to me that the inevitable consequence of setting results (or desire) over truth is the cultural chaos we now live with: in which everyone exalts himself as a little god to reinterpret the world (reality, life, texts, other people) as suits his whimsy or to be pampered by our consumer culture.

Bacon identifies knowledge with production1: man does not so much receive already created forms into his mind, as impose his will on moldable material. To say that we only know in making is to set ourselves up over the whole universe—to usurp a Divine prerogative.2 The simple fact is that only for the Creator is knowledge everywhere identical to production.

The promise to be as gods was first spoken by the Serpent in the Garden. It is likewise the Baconian temptation to which modern man has succumbed, and with whose consequences we now tragically live.


1. This assertion is the basic premise of the modern project, which goes back to Machiavelli, who put ends before truth, but even before with the Nominalists like Occam, who put the will before the intellect.

2. Of course, strictly speaking man creates nothing: he simply rearranges preexisting things. So it should be no surprise that modern philosophers, who take Bacon's premise as an implicit starting point, should conclude that we can likewise know nothing.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

British Climate Memos: Baconian Science as Usual

With the UN's IPCC now doing damage control—er, staging an investigation, the "Climategate" controversy over the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit (CRU) continues to heat up. The public is understandably shocked by the revelation that "science" is possibly being manipulated to further political ends.

The public might not be so surprised if it knew the seedy origins of "science."

"Open-source" Science

There has been much good commentary on emails as manifesting the problem of science being done behind closed doors. This Slashdot story has a lot of interesting commentary. John Tierny notes how these inept attempts at manipulation are backfiring:

In response to the furor over the climate e-mail messages, there will be more attention than ever paid to those British temperature records, and any inconsistencies or gaps will seem more suspicious simply because the researchers were so determined not to reveal them.

Andrew Revkin even quotes climate scientists who see this scandal as an opportunity for more openness:

Mike Hulme, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia and author of “Why We Disagree About Climate Change,” said the disclosures could offer a chance to finally bring the practices of climate researchers and the intergovernmental panel into the modern era, where transparency — enforced legally or illegally — is inevitable and appropriate.

“The I.P.C.C. itself, through its structural tendency to politicize climate change science, has perhaps helped to foster a more authoritarian and exclusive form of knowledge production,” he said in an e-mail message, “just at a time when a globalizing and wired cosmopolitan culture is demanding of science something much more open and inclusive.”

The call for more transparency is nearly universal. We live, after all, in a democracy (as opposed to an aristocracy). "We the people" need to be rightly informed so that we can decide. Scientists lashing out from elitist frustrations with their fellow citizens' ignorance and thickheadedness won't win any converts. Perhaps scientists at a university could condescend to educate? (This would seem particularly apt given the public funding many of these scientists receive.) The secretive strategy is rather short-sighted.

Which Science Is Betrayed?

But even the perspicacious commentators on the problem of scientific secrecy have missed a critical point: public manipulation in the name of science is no betrayal of science—as long as one means by "science" modern science, whose primary goal is "useful" production, instead of the classical, more general conception of science as (not necessarily productive) knowledge.

As far as modern science is concerned, this scandal is not that much of an aberration. The popular perception is that science as we know it seeks truth. In reality it seeks "fruit" or results.

Much of modern science's blueprint was drawn up by Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who was not so much a scientist as a politician: before discovering anything about the world, science is a human endeavor and therefore a political project. The modern project is above all political. Bacon asserts that the “true ends of knowledge” are “the benefit and use of life.”1 His aim is to “lay the foundation… of human utility and power”2 and seek in knowledge “a rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.”3 Most pointedly Bacon criticizes the Greek philosophy then regnant as having “the characteristic property of boys: it can talk, but it cannot generate; for it is fruitful of controversies but barren of works.”4

To Bacon then, truth is not the highest value, but production: what 'works.'

Certainly, Bacon avowedly seeks the benefit of all mankind. Unfortunately, the goal very easily slides from "benefit mankind" to "benefit my scientific career" or "benefit a political program." The arguments go something like this:

  • "But I'm a part of mankind, am I not? So what benefits me, benefits mankind, no?"5, and:
  • "Our political movement is full of good people who, unlike our opponents, seek to make the world a better place. So regardless of the falsehood of this particular argument, its advance helps our movement, which helps mankind."

Indeed, in Bacon's New Atlantis, the members of Salomon's House (the scientific research institute of his utopian story) manipulate the people with illusions (e.g., light-shows to promote Christian religion) and keep secrets from even the state. Baconian scientists seek to manipulate not only nature, but also their fellow citizens and their country.

From its inception modern science has elitist, secretive tendencies.6 In the CRU scandal, these tendencies have merely been exposed to the light.

Science and Democracy: Uneasy Allies

Tocqueville has some insightful observations on the linkage between democracy and practicality in the sciences:

Men of science at such periods are consequently carried away towards theory; and it even happens that they frequently conceive an inconsiderate contempt for practice. "Archimedes," says Plutarch, "was of so lofty a spirit that he never condescended to write any treatise on the manner of constructing all these engines of war. And as he held this science of inventing and putting together engines, and all arts generally speaking which tended to any useful end in practice, to be vile, low, and mercenary, he spent his talents and his studious hours in writing only of those things whose beauty and subtlety had in them no admixture of necessity." Such is the aristocratic aim of science; it cannot be the same in democratic nations.7

Lust for practical results is common to both democracy and Baconian science. On the other hand, democracies, to function well, require open and honest debate, while as we've seen, Baconian science is intrinsically elitist and manipulative—that is, at odds with the basic requirements of democracy.

It seems then that democracies will love the products of Baconian science, but that such science will undermine democracy. The net action is that science is one instrument that democracies use to undermine themselves.8

Somehow the public hasn't gotten over what many in the postmodern academy might regard as an unsophisticated love of truth. "We the people" in our earthy naivete are drawn toward the real meaning of "science," but have mistaken modern science for the occupant of that office. Baconian science disguises itself under the regalia of classical science, that is, science in the sense of philosophy or systematic truth. Is it possible that modern science can cast away the baggage of its rough parentage and truly fill the throne it occupies by popular confusion? Can modern science be turned to seek truth more than products?

With our economy structured around scientifically motivated technical innovation, the odds are against such a reform in the near term. However there are many conceptual seeds to be sown now that will only fully sprout in the cultural desolation of a civilization turned entirely technical. Who knows?: Some of this new growth may take over before the old has entirely died away.


You can find a searchable database of the CRU emails online here (h/t What's Up with That?).

News summary, up-to-date as of Thursday, December 3: "Storm contiues to swirl around Climategate, as multiple investigations get under way "


1. Francis Bacon, “The Great Instauration,” New Atlantis and the Great Instauration, ed. Jerry Weinberger (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1980), 16.

2. Ibid.

3. Advancement of Learning, Book I, v, 11

4. Bacon, “The Great Instauration,” 8.

5. A related dimension that's often lost in the climate change controversy (and so many stories about science) is the often self-serving nature of science's dramatic claims. As I commented in the last post (regarding DNA), from the time of Galileo, science has been about self-promotion; scientists need funding to carry on their research. (Galileo's claiming more for his theories than he could actually observationally support is a large reason he got in trouble with the Church—as Cardinal Bellarmine's statements make clear.)

6. Closely related to the transcendence of the Cartesian 'mind' over the physical world.

7. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol 2, ch. X.

8. Yet another more general way to look at this: democracies prefer short-term results (products) to long-term goods (such as truth); they get short-term success and long-term failure. Cf. Toqueville's "self-interest rightly understood"—only truth is a self-interest that transcends the self and whose discipleship sometimes requires complete abandonment of "self."

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.

—Cicero, "Pro Plancio," XXXIII.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

DNA: Not the Master Molecule

Before I begin, let me wish everyone a safe, happy Thanksgiving celebration.

In researching a piece I'm working on, I read Richard Lewontin's "The Dream of the Human Genome." Like all of us, Lewontin has his ideological baggage, but his assessment of the limitations of genetics is excellent. Even when he's not exactly right, he's close enough to be a stimulating interlocutor.

Lewontin does an excellent job debunking the fallacies that have grown up around DNA. First he targets the language of DNA as somehow autonomous and self-reproducing: "The process of copying a photograph includes the production of a complementary negative which is then printed, but we do not describe the Eastman Kodak factory as a place of self-reproduction." After more superb material along this line, he next moves on to the conception of DNA as an active agent or "maker":

Not only is DNA incapable of making copies of itself, aided or unaided, but it is incapable of "making" anything else. The linear sequence of nucleotides in DNA is used by the machinery of the cell to determine what sequence of amino acids is to be built into a protein, and to determine when and where the protein is to be made. But the proteins of the call are made by other proteins, and without that protein-forming machinery nothing can be made. There is an appearance here of infinite regress (What makes the proteins that are necessary to make the protein?), but this appearance is an artifact of another error of vulgar biology, that it is only the genes that are passed from parent to offspring. In fact, an egg, before fertilization, contains a complete apparatus of production deposited there in the course of its cellular development. We inherit not only genes made of DNA but an intricate structure of cellular machinery made up of proteins.

It is the evangelical enthusiasm of the modern Grail Knights and the innocence of the journalistic acolytes whom they have catechized that have so fetishized DNA. There are, too, ideological predispositions that make themselves felt. The more accurate description of the role of DNA is that it bears information that is read by the cell machinery in the productive process. Subtly, DNA as information bearer is transmogrified into DNA as blueprint, as plan, as master plan, as master molecule. It is the transfer onto biology of the belief in the superiority of mental labor over merely physical, of the planner and designer over the unskilled operative on the assembly line. (143-144)

Lewontin touches on an excellent point in the last sentence.1 There's a strong (Cartesian) dualism at work in the mechanical conception of the cell popular in biology these days. One landmark of genetics is Francis Crick's "Central Dogma" (1958) that postulates that genetic information flows only one direction: from DNA to RNA to proteins, and never in reverse. The only way the DNA can change is through random mutations. Thus we have a Master Molecule, like the Cartesian mind, enthroned in splendid isolation from the cell it governs. The Master Molecule cannot be modified except by Chance, which assumes the role of the machine's extrinsic designer (cf. ID theory). In reality, thanks to the work of Barbara McClintock and others, we know that while this picture of information flow is largely true, there are major exceptions. But the important point is not so much that the unidirectionality of information flow is wrong, but that what is wrong is the conception of this information as the all-important determination of the cell (or organism). Lewontin discusses this in the next selection:

Unfortunately it takes more than DNA to make a living organism. I once heard one of the world's leaders in molecular biology say, in the opening address of a scientific congress, that if he had a large enough computer and the complete DNA sequence of an organism, he could compute the organism, by which he meant totally describe its anatomy, physiology, and behavior. But that is wrong. Even the organism does not compute itself from its DNA. A living organism at any moment in its life is the unique consequence of a developmental history that results from the interaction of and determination by internal and external forces. The external forces, what we usually think of as "environment," are themselves partly a consequence of the activities of the organism itself as it produces and consumes the conditions of its own existence. Organisms do not find the world in which they develop. They make it. Reciprocally, the internal forces are not autonomous, but act in response to the external. Part of the internal chemical machinery of a cell is only manufactured when external conditions demand it. For example, the enzyme that breaks down the sugar lactose to provide energy for bacterial growth is only manufactured by the bacterial cells when they detect the presence of lactose in their environment.

Nor is "internal" identical with "genetic." Fruit flies have long hairs that serve as sensory organs, rather like a cat's whiskers. The number and placement of those hairs differs between the two sides of a fly (as they do between the left and right sides of a cat's muzzle), but not in any systematic way. Some flies have more hairs on the left, some more on the right. Moreover, the variation between the sides of a fly is as great as the average variation from fly to fly. But the two sides of a fly have the same genes and have had the same environment during development. The variation between sides is a consequence of random cellular movements and chance molecular events within cells during development, so-called "developmental noise." It is this same developmental noise that accounts for the fact that identical twins have different fingerprints and that the fingerprints on our left and right hands are different. A desktop computer that was as sensitive to room temperature and as noisy in its internal circuitry as a developing organism could hardly be said to compute at all. (147-148, emphasis added)

The organism cannot be reduced to its DNA. The DNA is not the Master Control Molecule, but is more like a library of recipes for making different things an organism's cells need in order to function. It's not that the DNA runs the cell, but that the cell uses the DNA as conditions (internal and external) demand.

Where Lewontin goes wrong is in his implicit acceptance of the conception of life as a machine (i.e., mechanism). Certainly he is right that the random variation of developmental noise is a sign that the organism isn't determined by its genetics and its environment. But more important than chance is the reality of the internality of the organism with which he begins the paragraph. No matter how good we get at explaining organismic activities with our reductionistic science, it will never do away with the fact that organism is not just a bunch of parts, but is a real self-determining whole. By "self-determining whole," I mean that it seeks to fulfill goals that belong to none of its parts separately. To see this, one has only to reflect on the fact that the parts of an organism are all replaceable: this or that protein or DNA molecule, or organelle can be swapped out for another of the same, but the organism retains its identity (in fact organisms continually renew themselves in this way). The drive to metabolize in order to remain living belongs to the organism as a whole, not to any of its parts (as such), which come and go. Whereas the organism must strive if it is to continue to exist, how it fulfills this demand is freely determined from within: the relative freedom of the internal milieu from external coercion is the source of its freedom.2

Another highlight of the article is that Lewontin makes clear the self-serving nature of geneticists' many outrageous claims. It's a tradition dating back to Galileo: scientists attract attention and funding through self-promotion. This point becomes painfully clear in an Evelyn Fox Keller article that Lewontin repeatedly references, "Nature, Nurture, and the Human Genome Project."


1. I will refrain from pointing out that the planner is superior to the laborer in a real way. Lewontin may be confusing dignity (in which all honest work is equally good) with value (in which the planner is more indispensable than the laborer). The problem is not the conception of difference in value, but the conceptualization (which he aptly observes is widespread) of the parts' differentiation as analogous to planners and laborers.

2. For more on the subject of this paragraph, see my post Four Levels of Teleology, especially the parts on the work of Hans Jonas and Lenny Moss.

Richard Lewontin, It Ain't Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions (New York: The New York Review of Books, 2001).

Evelyn Fox Keller, "Nature, Nurture, and the Human Genome Project" in The Code of Codes: Scientific and Social Issues in the Human Genome Project, ed. Daniel J. Kevles, Leroy Hood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992), 281-299.

Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001/1966), esp. p. 126. See this previous post.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Procreational Ordering without Conception

As I understand it, most marital acts don't result in conception. Lately I've been wondering how the fact that procreation is the natural end of marital relations fits into the qualification that events that happen by nature occur "always or for the most part" (Physics II.8.199b24). I just ran across this old, but very interesting post of Jimmy Akin ("Higamus, Hogamus," June 13, 2004) that may have at least part of the answer:

It turns out that as a result of the marital act, genetic material from the husband is permanently absorbed by the wife's body and becomes part of her--a dimension of the "one flesh" union between husband and wife that previous generations have been unaware of.


One of the ways these problems are reduced is that having absorbed sufficient quantities of the husband's genetic material better enables the mother to perform the immune modulation needed to allow her child--with its foreign genetic code--to exist in her body without her immune system trying to eliminate it.

The BBC article Akin links ("Sex 'primes woman for sperm'," 6 Feb 2002) contains this thought-provoking sentence: "The theory could partly explain why humans have sex even when they aren't trying for a baby."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Conservative Physics"

The past couple decades have witnessed attempts to cultivate what might best be called a "Conservative Physics." The largest outlet for this view is The American Spectator, and its largest proponent Tom Bethell, who's the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.

Before I continue, (in the interest of full disclosure) I should let you know that my (real) name was proposed by a few folks connected with the "PI Guides" to write the guide to science. Even though it would have been a good opportunity for me in some ways, I think Bethell was the better man for the job. For one thing, Bethell is not a scientist, and would tend to have a more popular approach to the subject. Certainly he wrote a much more topical, philosophically lighter book than I would have (albeit one that fails to get to the heart of the shortcomings of modern science), and I expect that was what the editors of the series were aiming for. So I hold no grudge.

Bethell wrote a piece in 1993 on Petr Beckmann's alternative to Einstein's special relativity ("Doubting Dada Physics"). Not sure, but he may also have been the one who interviewed Carver Mead (Sep/Oct 2001). Much more recently—September in fact—, Bethell updates the anti-relativity argument with "Can We Do Without Relativity?" in which he plugs his book, Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary?.

The purpose of this post is to point out the severe limitations of this line of thought. My problem is not with people who question mainstream physics (heck, that's what mainstream physicists are supposed to do!), but that the "conservative" critiques are not radical enough.

Quantum Mechanics

Over the past several years, various conservative non-scientists have recommended to me Carver Mead's Collective Electrodynamics (MIT Press, 2000). The typical claim is that Mead sees the obscurantism in quantum mechanics as usually taught these days and that his thinking obviates these problems. As the September-October 2001 American Spectator interview makes clear, Mead sees (some of) the shortcomings of the current paradigm of physics. How could a conservative not warm to him?

I started read Mead's book expecting some sort of real insight into the nature of the (quantum) world. In actuality, Mead succeeds in saying very little about the world we humans live in. Even his mathematical claims are modest:

This approach does not produce a new theory in the sense that it contains startling new equations, for it does not. The results it derives for standard electromagnetic problems are identical to those found in any text on the subject. (5)

I found that even this is an understatement. On page 20 (chapter 1) he arrives at equation 1.17. On the following page he proclaims

We have, however, just encountered our first big surprise: We recognize the second form of Eq. 1.17, which came from Newton's law, as the integral form of one of Maxwell's equations!

Actually it's not so surprising, considering that 1.17 is derived ultimately (via equation 1.7) from equation 1.1, which is actually just another form of that same Maxwell equation he thinks he has derived by other means. In other words, Mead has smuggled in by assumption what he later claims to have serendipitously discovered.

I didn't make it past the first chapter, in large part because the circularity of the argument made it clear to me that it would be a waste to invest more time in a book whose mathematical argument wasn't even carefully vetted.

The deeper problem that put me off the book is that Mead isn't careful to distinguish theory-laden "observations" from what the experimental observer actually sees with his eyes and takes in with his other senses.1 You can get a sense of this in the Spectator interview when he talks about "ten-foot electrons." It's not that one sees or feels electrons that big, but that experiment filtered through theoretical conceptions indicates that the electron is that "big" (i.e., the waveform of which it consists takes up that much space). Mead himself may "see" these electrons (i.e., have a sense of their presence intuitively), but invisible to him and unexpressed are the assumptions through which his "observations" are being filtered (such assumptions are what enable stage magicians to fool their audiences). The result is that it's not clear that Mead claiming anything about reality, as opposed to the abstractions of physics.


There was a strong reaction against Bethell's 1993 piece on relativity. That the reaction of mainstream physicists and their allies against a supposedly conservative thesis was sometimes childish and unnecessarily persnickety might to some be cause for circling the wagons. But I would ask first: what are we circling around? Is it worth protecting?

I think it was around 2002, shortly after I read Bethell's 1993 piece on relativity, that I ordered the Beckmann book Einstein Plus Two. I didn't get very far into it before I stopped reading. As I recall, the problem was in Beckmann's presentation of the first example of "purely optical" evidence that he cites: his explanation of stellar aberration (1.3.1, p. 31) is rather incomplete and not open enough about how the phenomenon not only fails to support this theory, but actually undermines it. (Please forgive my poor memory of this point.)

Brad DeLong, Professor of Economics (!) at UC Berkeley, authored one of the reactions against Bethell. He really doesn't have much to say about the Bethell's claims against Einstein—relativity largely rises or falls on experiment, and no amount of experimental evidence will ever rule out the possibility that some future experiment will eliminate a long-held and cherished theory (such is the strength and weakness of modern science). He's left with "snipping around the edges" by questioning some details Bethell gets wrong, but mostly questioning the motivation underlying Bethell's critique of Einstein.2 Most notably he attributes opposition to Einstein to the right's latent Antisemitism (!)—something akin to Jimmy Carter's recent blaming opposition to President Obama's health-care plan on racism. Somehow questioning motivations is supposed to neutralize the force of an argument.

I'll leave you to read over DeLong's critique and judge for yourself.

Before I continue, I should note that I actually think Einstein's relativity is a great support to Jewish and Christian religions and moral absolutes, as I've written here.

Deeper Problems

Physicist and philosophy professor Richard Hassing once said in an introduction to a talk:

The bookstores contain quite a few books on the weirdness of quantum physics. To my knowledge, there are no books on the weirdness of classical physics, which is even described by physicists as common sense sharpened up. I don't think this is right, and so the most basic theme and more accurate title of this lecture is "Classical Weirdness."

Hassing is exactly right. Conservatives think they've been swindled with modern physics (i.e., quantum mechanics and relativity), but fail to notice that their pockets have already been picked by classical physics.3 For example, most obviously: the Law of Inertia talks about bodies unaffected by outside forces: when was the last time you saw a body isolated from all forces?

Less obviously: why does Newton's assumption of inertia make organisms less natural? If organisms are unnatural, then how much more unnatural are rational organisms (humans)! How can we ever be at home in a universe in which we are unnatural?

The real challenge for people searching for the truth (among them many political conservatives) is to come up with a way of understanding and talking about nature that is not only true to the established results of the science of the last few centuries, but is also true to much more fundamental human experience of the world, in all its sensory and moral dimensions.

That's the way that we're going to make the world a more human, more humane place more conducive to human happiness.

Regarding the connection of modern science and political divisions, I cannot recommend enough Yuval Levin's excellent Science and the Left:

Putting aside all the loose talk of a Republican assault on reason, this simpler point does ring true: There is indeed a deep and well-established kinship between science and the left, one that reaches to the earliest days of modern science and politics and has grown stronger with time. Even though they go astray in caricaturing conservatives as anti-science Luddites, American liberals and progressives are not mistaken to think of themselves as the party of science. They do, however, tend to focus on only a few elements and consequences of that connection, and to look past some deep and complicated problems in the much-valued relationship. The profound ties that bind science and the left can teach us a great deal about both.


1. A typical fault of modern science that might be understood as a consequence of talking only to one's fellow specialists who are intimately familiar with the typical experimental set-ups. Unfortunately these set-ups are completely unknown to non-specialists like you and me.

2. One of the most unlikely parts of the DeLong piece is that the sentence "First, conservatives who dislike Einstein do so for one of two reasons" precedes three bullet points. One would think that even professors of economics could count, and correct a fault after over 11 years of its being on the web.

3. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute is an excellent organization and publishes some excellent books. Unfortunately, the A Student's Guide to Natural Science is disappointingly uncritical of the received view of the sciences. ISI would have been better off retitling and repackaging Ralph M. McInerny's A Student's Guide to Philosophy, which is spot-on about the modern natural sciences.

Tom Bethell, "Doubting Dada Physics," The American Spectator 26:8 (Aug 1993), p. 16.

Brad DeLong, "Conservative Fear of Albert Einstein" (6/16/1997), accessed October 31, 2009.

Anonymous, "Carver Mead: The Spectator interview," The American Spectator 34:7 (Sep/Oct 2001), 68-76.

Richard F. Hassing, "On Aristotelian, Classical and Quantum Physics," Public Lecture, Thomas Aquinas College, March 7, 2003.

Tom Bethell, "Can We Do Without Relativity?" The American Spectator (September 2009).

Note: Work is busy. Not sure how often I'll be posting for now.

Update (Nov. 10): Brad DeLong has reposted his petulant piece on his blog (but he has cleaned up his bullet points).

As Mike Flynn has pointed out in the comments, Steve Barr has blogged about Bethell's piece on the First Things blog. Bethell and Barr have exchanged salvos in the comments. Frankly Barr is getting the better of it (so far). The exchange has come to the notice of a Discover Magazine blog.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hiatus Explained

I've been away from the blog for the past several weeks because my new job required me to move. I'm now busy finding my way in my new position.

Hope to post again before the end of October.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Love: Marital vs. Romantic

Some may think it takes chutzpah for a bachelor to write on marriage, But just as a medical doctor doesn't need to have cancer to diagnose a patient's illness, I hope my detachment will aid my objectivity.

Before anyone misunderstands the title of this post, I need to be very clear that I'm not trying to say that marriage is necessarily opposed to romantic love. What I am trying to say is that they exist in tension. To the modern mind, romance is the only justification for marriage. But when one looks at marriage itself, the reasons for it are much more practical and earthy.

What brought this subject to mind is a book I recently read, Captain from Castile by Samuel Shellabarger—an entertaining novel, but by no means a literary classic. The story is about Pedro de Vargas, a young Spaniard nobleman from Jaén who accompanies Cortez in his conquest of the Aztec Empire (Mexico) after a frightful run-in with the Spanish Inquisition. Pedro has two love interests. On the one hand, there is Luisa de Carvajal, a young noblewoman, who is his romantic ideal. On the other hand, there is Catana Pérez, a common girl who works as a barmaid and entertains as a dancer, whom he also loves.

These two women don't respectively represent the two sides of love that are the subject of this post, but rather two perspectives on love, one of which divides the two sides, while the other unites them. On the one hand, there is the upper-class perspective, represented by Luisa. For the rich, (romantic) love is a game, an entertainment, while marriage is for the practical purposes of children, allying families, and securing societal station. The poor, meanwhile, lack the luxury of "playing" at love, but must find whatever (romantic) love they can in their spouses.

Of course, from our modern perspective, "love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage," so the separatist perspective is incomprehensible. Despite the fact that the song attributes that opinion to the "local gentry," a large part of our belief comes from the democratic, egalitarian times in which we live: we're all commoners; we lack the cultured detachment that plagues the wealthy.

Despite this incomprehensibility—in fact because of it—it is especially important to make an effort to appreciate the merit of the position. Please don't mistake me to be advocating adultery or making love a game. I am not here advocating a line of behavior, but simply an appreciation of a lost perspective.

The Divine Romance

Romantic love is prefigurement of the Divine Love. This was plainly realized by the time of Plato's Symposium, which praises love as divine.1 In Michelangelo's "Creation of Man" on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Eve hides under God's arm; Adam extends his finger in longing as much to Eve as to God. There's something similar being shown in Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II's The Jeweler's Shop when Anna encounters the Bridegroom (Christ) with the face of her husband Stefan, even though their marriage is suffering grave difficulty: it is through her human bridegroom that she will reach her Divine Bridegroom.

Francis Schaeffer, in his video series How Should We Then Live?, takes issue with the separation of the romantic ideal from one's spouse, particularly in reference to Dante's love for Beatrice, whom Dante may never have met and who was definitely never his wife. (He says the idealization of Beatrice degraded Dante's wife to "a dray horse of a woman."2) But there's something Schaeffer is obviously missing here: Dante's love for Beatrice drew him to God in a particular way.

In the mysterious, inexhaustible "otherness" of an unfulfilled love, don't we catch a glimpse, albeit fleeting, of the mysterious, inexhaustible "otherness" of the Love that will be fulfilled only after death?

True, no finite creature can fully re-present the goodness of the Creator. God is always much more than us and we will never exhaust his goodness, whereas a human lover cannot help but fall short and cease to draw us effectively to God. The shortcomings of someone with whom you consort on a day-to-day basis are so much more familiar.3 (Familiarity breeds contempt, the adage goes.) The sacred is set apart from the mundane. This is why it's so much easier for a near-stranger (like Beatrice) to represent the sacred.

Loves' Perils

Of course, there is a danger of seeing in romantic love, not a reflection of eternal love, but the eternal love itself—and this may be an error to which many practitioners of courtly love fell prey. The key is to understand that this world is a pale reflection of a greater world. Realizing this difference, we can use the longing human love puts in us to understand more fully and draw us to love God, as it is clear that Dante did with his love for Beatrice.

But there is also a danger of confusing marital love for eternal love.4 I think this is the danger to which we are particularly prone today. Marriage is a very practical societal reality and it may be that one's spouse will not stir one's heart forever. That spouses should be perpetually head-over-heels "in love" is a false ideal; along with the human failure to live up it, this expectation is the culprit behind the staggering divorce rate in this country. It's also the reason so many young people cohabitate instead of marrying: they realize (usually from the example of their divorced parents) their own inability to live up to this unattainable illusion. Of course the degradation of marriage to a legal formality instead of a lifelong commitment (a commitment based on the continuation of love beyond feelings of love) is why homosexuals think they can wed: if marriage means simply benefits from society without real commitment, they are as capable as anyone else!

At the root of confusing marital with eternal love is the confusion of marital love with romantic love: the idea that the two are necessarily identical. Certainly it is best for spouses to have feelings of love to assist them in their duties to one another. Marriage is not always going to be a heart-stirring affair. It's hard work at times. What we need nowadays is to reaffirm the practicality of marriage: it is the cornerstone of human society. The difficult truth is that, whether there's romance involved or not, we need to have marriage. There is a human need for romance, but romance will come and go, and humans can learn to live in its presence or absence. The unavoidable truth is that no society can long endure without marriage to raise up the next generation.

Along similar lines, here's a though-provoking article by Sam Schulman I ran across on why homosexual "marriage" cannot bear the weight of that name.


1. Procreation is one divine aspect of love, as it allows finite creatures to participate in the eternal. Is it any surprise that we would have feelings of eternity in an act that allows us to participate in it?

2. Quoted from memory. Cf. p. 58 of the book version.

3. I mean "consort" in multiple senses.

4. It's probably truer to say that we today confuse all three loves (romantic, marital, eternal): we have such a one-dimensional ideal of love today. C.S. Lewis's book on The Four Loves is an apt antidote.

Samuel Shellabarger, Captain from Castile (Garden City, NY: The Sun Dial Press, 1946).

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Aristotelian Empiricism

A question that's been disputed here in the past is the existence of things not open to direct empirical verification, in the modern sense of the positive empirical sciences. One disputed reality is the existence of substances, which are not directly sensible, and which we only know through their "accidents" or sensible characteristics.

The book by Richard J. Connell I've been reading explains how metaphysical principles, such as substances, are known through their sensible, physical effects. As he writes on p. 175, "Undoubtedly, some people will be surprised to learn that, according to the Aristotelians, there is nothing in the intellect which was not originally in the senses in some manner."

Even the modern, empirical sciences infer the existence of non-sensible realities from their sensible effects:

Next, let us consider some examples from the experimental sciences. Magnetic fields are not directly observable; their existence is known through the medium of observable movements. Certainly, the observable motions are distinct from the magnetic fields and cannot be identified with them. These movements, which cannot be reduced to other, known attributes or realities, are the first things to be apprehended. The fact that they are not (notice the negation) accountable for by what is already known leads to the affirmation of another, unobservable attribute to explain the motion. The magnetic field is then conceived so as best to account for the observed effects. Indeed, the whole process of constructing an hypothesis on magnetic theory is measured by the demands of teh observed phenomena through which the very existence of the unobservable attribute is known.

An electric current is another illustration of the same kind of noetic procedure. The deflections of meter needles, the shocks that come from "hot" wires, etc.—surely none of these, either singly or collectively is the electric current. These phenomena lead to a knowledge of something else which is the current, but the phenomena themselves are not that current. (183-4)

So unless we want to dispose of the essences discovered by science, which are in themselves not sensible, there is no principled, non-arbitrary way to rule out inferences to metaphysical principles, even immaterial ones, so long as they have a basis in sensible reality.

The doctrine that has been outlined here can, I think, be interpreted to support the empiricists in their insistence upon the necessity of verifying the meaning of terms in sense experience, without, however, denying the reality of non-sensible substances and accidents; for, if their verification principle is understood as demanding that names signify either (1) things that are directly sensible, or (2) things that are not directly sensible but which are knowable through the medium of something that is, then the principle is true. On the other hand, the present doctrine, although insisting upon sense experience as the origin of intellectual knowledge, does not exclude true and meaningful metaphysical propositions, however difficult and infrequently attained the latter may be. To repeat, it does not, as a matter of principle, rule out all metaphysical statements, but only those which pretend to be prior and independent of experience—in other words, all rationalistic "metaphysics." (185)

Richard J. Connell, Matter and Becoming (Chicago: The Priory Press, 1966).

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Past and Future of Space Exploration

Today is the fortieth anniversary of the first manned Moon landing and Moon walk.1 To commemorate, Google has introduced Google Moon, which includes markers for the six manned moon landings (but what about the unmanned? robots are people too! haha). Here's a zoomed-in map of the Apollo-11 moon landing site. (Hat-tip to GoogleMapsMania, where there are a few more moon-related links.)

Apparently the Apollo 11 astronauts are on the stump today for the manned mission to Mars. I'm rather doubtful of the advisability of working toward such a mission now.

First of all, manned missions are "astronomically" more expensive than unmanned missions for the simple reason that we rightly value human life and want to return our astronauts to Earth alive. Equipment requires testing so that some spring doesn't fly off and puncture a spacesuit, for example. Even more, all the equipment to maintain an Earth-like environment is dreadfully heavy. Since increasing payload weight increases the amount of fuel required, which itself increases the weight and thus the amount of fuel needed, the total fuel required to lift a payload into orbit increases with the square of the weight. So life-support alone makes manned missions much, much more costly.

Secondly as any space scientist can tell you (privately), the vast bulk of space science comes from unmanned missions, e.g., the successes of Voyager, Mars Rover, and Galileo. Scientists remain silent in public because they want to keep their NASA funding. Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, unmanned missions are scientifically orders of magnitude far more productive than manned missions.

Of course there's far more than scientific discovery at stake with a Mars mission: there's also national pride, firing the imagination of science students, etc. But can we really afford to spend billions of dollars simply to feel better about ourselves at this point? Can't we motivate our students in a more cost effective way, say, by promoting parental involvement? Besides, unmanned missions are exciting too: just look at the interest created by the pictures from the Voyager missions, or the Mars Rover.

Granted: our government has just given away close to $100 billion to unwise banks and failing businesses. The federal budget is over $2 trillion. A couple billion dollars a year seems a measly amount by comparison. Mark Thornton has a great response:

I have to admit that with all the hundreds of billions of dollars the federal government is wasting, it is hard to muster the energy to argue against a few additional billion. I reiterate that the real cost is not just a dollar amount, but all the things that could be produced if the proposal is rejected. This is an enormous amount of scientific and technical ability that could otherwise be used in the private sector to produce important discoveries and help keep the US economy number one in the world. In contrast to conventional wisdom which sees government budgets as a benefactor to science, the economic view shows that every dollar government spends on science actually hurts the progress of science and scientific discovery because scientific resources are diverted away from where they are needed most into nonperforming bureaucracies. We must also consider the fact that estimated or projected budgets are almost universally inaccurate and vastly underestimate the true cost of programs. For example, the International Space Station was more than 500% over budget and is still incomplete after twenty years. The actual cost of the Shuttle moving resources into space was underestimated by a factor of twenty. Based on current estimates of the total cost of going to Mars ($170 billion) the true cost could easily mount to $1 trillion.

As history has shown, government bureaucracies are horribly inept at space exploration. (This is for the simple reason that it gets its funding from its citizens at gunpoint, as it were—bullies are horribly lazy.) Privatizing space exploration would be far more efficient way to achieve goals in space and to benefit society.

People arguing for publicly funded manned missions point to the legacy such missions will leave for future generations. But I think it is more likely that future generations would blame us for opting to pleasure ourselves (as our consumeristic society already does too much these days) with an inefficient effort that saddles them with more public debt.

I'm sure that someday we'll land astronauts on Mars. In the meantime public funding would be better spent on exploring with robots and maybe developing more efficient propulsion systems. But really it would be best to turn over space exploration to the free market.


1. There is an obvious joke here, but that poor man's memory has been held in public view far too long already.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A Gap in the Mask

I heard on NHPR this morning that Massachusetts is challenging the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) for impeding its enforcement of same-sex "marriage equality." (I can't find at link at NHPR, but here's another write-up.) Apparently, despite Obama's posturing as "moderate," his administration is "coming out" in favor of the suit.

Further, a group of Iraq-war veterans are advocating repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bars homosexuals from openly identifying themselves as such in the military. We'll see what Obama does with that one.

American Papist notes a NY Times Magazine piece in which Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg admits something extraordinary:

Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion.

She could have said "populations that some didn't want to have too many of," but by saying "populations that we don’t want to have too many of," she makes it clear that she was in favor of directing abortion to eliminate certain (read: minority) populations. (Would any cue less subtle have made it through the spin machine?) Back in Europe there were times in the first half of last century when the populations targeted as undesirable would have included Jews like Justice Ginsburg herself. How quickly we forget the lessons of history!

Despite the massive spin control the media exercises on behalf of the liberal world order, the ugly truth occasionally peeks out from behind the mask. Or perhaps liberals feel secure enough in their mastery of our culture that they don't have to hide any more. If only the American people were less indoctrinated into the cult of "what difference does it make?"!

Update (7/19): Michael Gerson has an insightful analysis of the Ginsburg interview.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Priority of Ordinary Experience

I mentioned a few posts back that I have been reading Richard J. Connell's Matter and Becoming. I ran across an excellent passage that I thought I'd share.

Let me put the matter another way. The ordinary experience of men leads them to declare that they know real things and not [merely] images, concepts, or the impressions within their knowing powers. The burden of proof, therefore, is on him who opposes this view, and we may legitimately inquire as to how he is going to verify his statement that "we do not know realities (but only images, etc.)." How is he going to show this to be true? It seems to me that the proponents of this doctrine have too often escaped being made responsible for their declaration. It is, after all, true that positions which go counter to the experience of men must be established and not gratuitously stated. How then, unless truth is to be redefined so that it does not imply an extrinsic standard, is such a position to be verified?

That last sentence is very elegantly put! To unpack: truth is the correspondence between our minds and (exterior) reality, so we need exterior reality to confirm any claim; unless we redefine "truth" to omit the reference to exterior reality, there can be no (coherent) way to confirm the claim that we don't know exterior reality. Of course, philosophers ever since Descartes have been trapped in their heads and unable to speak of truth except by redefining truth as mere consistency.

Connell continues,

It seems philosophers are sometimes led to deny or doubt the fact that we know the exterior world because they cannot explain how. In so doing they fail to distinguish the fundamentally different questions which the mind can ask (or at least they fail to make use of these distinctions). It is especially true that certain epistemological difficulties have arisen because the question whether something is has often gone undistinguished from the questions asking what, how, or why it is. This point needs elaboration.

Everyone knows that some things are living; but most people will declare that they do not know what life is. Similarly, everyone is aware that he understands, sees, moves his arms, etc.; but the largest part of mankind is ignorant (even in part) of what these activities are and how they occur. As Professor DeKoninck of Laval University pointed out, this was Descartes' error with regard to motion: that there is motion is very evident; but what motion is, is very obscure. Thus, because it is evident that there is motion, Descartes thought it was also clear what movement is; he confused the two questions.

The last two sentences allude to Descartes' derision of Aristotle's definition of motion (Physics III.1) as superfluous: for example, in Rules for the Direction of the Mind, 24, 426, he calls them "magic words" and not understandable.

Actually the few pages in which this passage occurs are wholly excellent. I can't wait to get to the rest of the book.

Richard J. Connell, Matter and Becoming (Chicago: The Priory Press, 1966), 7.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Men and Women in Science

A recent report published by the National Academies of Science calls into question the convential (PC) wisdom that women are more poorly represented than men in science because they are victims of prejudice (h/t to Chistina Hoff Sommers). The executive summary says,

Our survey findings do indicate that, at many critical transition points in their academic careers (e.g., hiring for tenure-track and tenure positions and promotions) women appear to have fared as well as or better than men... These findings are in contrast to the COSEPUP [Shalala] committee’s general conclusions, that “women who are interested in science and engineering careers are lost at every educational transition” and the “evaluation criterion contain arbitrary and subjective components that disadvantage women.”

The 2006 Shalala report set Capitol Hill aglow1 with the reports of uncorrected "gender bias" even though the report itself was discounted as politically biased by credible researchers. Surprise: a report issued by Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Clinton, is politically biased.

As Christina Hoff Sommers writes about the findings of the new report,

To give one typical finding, in the years studied, 2004 and 2005, women accounted for approximately 20 percent of applicants for positions in mathematics, but were 28 percent of those interviewed and 32 percent of those who received job offers. Furthermore, once women attained jobs in math or science programs, their teaching loads and research resources were comparable to men’s. Female full professors were paid, on average, 8 percent less than males. But the committee attributed this to the fact that the senior male professors had more years of experience. There were no differences in salaries for male and female assistant and associate professors. “I don’t think we would have anticipated that in so many areas that there would have been such a balance in opportunities for men and women,” said Dr. Sally Shaywitz, Yale University research scientist and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report.

The new study does not claim that women have achieved parity with men. It found, for example, that women with Ph.D.s in math and science are far less likely than men to pursue a career at a research-intensive university. Why should that be? The report does not say, but suggests it would be an important question to pursue. In fact, there is now a lively and growing literature on gender and vocation. While some scholars contend that “unconscious bias” and persistent stereotypes are primary reasons for the paucity of women in the high echelons of math and science, others, perhaps a majority, suggest that men and women, on average, have different career interests and propensities. (AEI Press will soon be publishing The Science on Women and Science, a collection of articles by scholars who argue different sides of this issue.)

The big question: how does one define "parity"? On what basis is 50-50 representation considered equitable?

Might it be that women (whether consciously or not) are more interested in sustaining human life directly (via family), than indirectly (in science)? Might it be that women (whether by conscious decision or not) have their priorities straight?

What seems clear is that fewer women than men desire to advance in science. This means the effort to achieve 50-50 representation is misguided. The preferences afforded to women in its pursuance disproportionately fall to the smaller number of women more devoted to science than to traditional family roles. In other words, a small, vocal minority of women is using "equality" as a pretext for preferential treatment.

George Orwell's been quoted very often, but can't be quoted excessively these days: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."


Some quotations from summary in the prepublication edition available online. All of the results were not in the same direction, but these show some ways women are given a disproportionate advantage in hiring and tenure evaluations (and men consequently given a disadvantage).

For the most part, men and women faculty in science, engineering, and mathematics have enjoyed comparable opportunities within the university, and gender does not appear to have been a factor in a number important career transitions and outcomes. (4)

The proportion of women who were interviewed for tenure-track or tenured positions was higher than the percentage of women who apply.... The proportion of women who received the first job offer was higher than the percentrage who were invited to interview. (6)

Women were more likely than men to receive tenure when they came up for tenure review. (9)


1. Including Republican Congressman Vernon Ehlers. He's a physicist: it just goes to show how difficult it is to get a truly conservative scientist. There's too much implicit indoctrination in science education. The undercurrent running through all of it, especially physics, is that there are no inherent natures in the world and that the order of the world is arbitrary and should be recreated to man's arbitrary standards.

Christina Hoff Sommers, "Baseless Bias and the New Second Sex," The American (June 10, 2009).

Committee on Gender Differences in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty; Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine; National Research Council, Gender Difference at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering and Mathematics Faculty (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2009).

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Matter and Becoming

On a friend's recommendation, I ordered a copy of a book on book I of Aristotle's Physics. It's an old book (not quite as old as the Physics!)—Matter and Becoming by Richard J. Connell, who studied at Laval.

I haven't started reading it yet, but even the title is highly suggestive. Matter in Aristotle's thought is what becomes something else; it's the principle of substantial becoming, the potentiality for one thing to become another. In contrast, matter in modern thought doesn't become anything, but is merely rearranged; in fact, strictly speaking there is nothing: there is only matter. Everything else is merely various arrangements of the "real substance" underlying everything.

It's amazing how Aristotle simply takes our experience at face value: there are things in the world and some things become other things. Meanwhile, modern thought starts with a bald postulate, an unproven hypothesis, a dogma not based on experience: there is only matter.

Which view is more empirical? Which is more reasonable?

Richard J. Connell, Matter and Becoming (Chicago: The Priory Press, 1966).

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Continuing West Controversy

Christopher West has published a clarification of his ABC interview. Not exactly satisfying, but good enough. Needless to say, West does not endorse Hefner or pornography.

Jimmy Akin has some well thought-out criticisms of both Christopher West and ABC's treatment of him. For whatever it's worth, I think Akin is spot-on.

Then David Schindler, head of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, published an article criticizing West in general. Schindler is an extremely learned man; I suspect there's something to his criticism of West, but I wish he would have unpacked some of the compact technical formulations he uses.

Michael Waldstein, translator of the latest edition of John Paul II's Theology of the Body responded, defending West from Schindler's criticisms. I was a little disappointed by this article, as it suffers from the vagueness he (rightly) attributes to Schindler; but it needs to be kept in mind that Waldstein is not in the best of health these days. However, Janet Smith's response to Schindler (at greater length) is much better—excellent and even-handed.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Naivete or Stupidity? West on Hefner

Christopher West is a popular exponent of Pope John Paul II's "Theology of the Body," which teaches a positive view to spousal intimacy as a reflection of God's love.1 Over the years I've heard untoward rumors about some questionable sexual practices that West is supposed to have advocated. In the absence of any solid evidence, I've discounted them as Jansenistic misunderstandings.

But now a friend sends me this ABC Nightline article. Here's the core of contention:

The seeming paradox of West's position is captured in the unlikely pairing of his two big heroes -- his muses, you might say. They are Pope John Paul II, and Hugh Hefner. A saint and a sinner.

"I actually see very profound historical connections between Hugh Hefner and John Paul II," said West.... Each man in his own way, West insisted, rescued sex from prudish Victorian morality....2

"I love Hugh Hefner," said West. "I really do. Why? Because I think I understand his ache. I think I understand his longing because I feel it myself. There is this yearning, this ache, this longing we all have for love, for union, for intimacy."

Pornography is a longing for intimacy...? Right. "Honey, I log into that website as an expression of my longing for intimacy," I can hear some husband trying to justify his porn addiction. Rather a remote reflection of any longing for intimacy!

Either West has been taken out of context, or else he needs to read more by Pope John Paul II and about Hefner, or both.

The Pope specifically condemns pornography in Love and Responsibility as a failure of real intimacy:

Pornography is a marked tendency to accentuate the sexual element when reproducing the human body or human love in a work of art, with the object of inducing the reader or viewer to believe that sexual values are the only real values of the person, and that love is nothing more than the experience, individual or shared, of those values alone. This tendency is harmful for.... the truth about human love consists always in reproducing the interpersonal relationship, however large sexual values may loom in that relationship.3 (192-3, emphasis added)

From what I know about Playboy, it's not exactly a complete interpersonal relationship that's being represented in its pages. That this is Hefner's schtick is grossly apparent in an article that West would be profitably familiar with, "The Cultural Victory of Hugh Hefner": "Sandy Bentley, the Playboy cover girl and former Hefner girlfriend (along with her twin sister Mandy), describes Hugh Hefner's current sexual practices in just enough detail to give you a good long pause." That Hefner's public persona includes two girlfriends at once is a big enough statement that the man doesn't represent a "longing for intimacy"—does anyone (outside of West) suffer from the illusion that playboys do? I won't reproduce the key passage on Hefner's practices, but here is the upshot:

Yes, you read that right. There it is, attributed to someone who ought to know, the stated fact on the public record. It may seem shocking or it may seem trivial, but it amounts to a significant confirmation that Hugh Hefner embodies what his detractors have been saying for years: All pornography is ultimately homosexual. All pornography stifles the development of genuine human relationships. All pornography is a manifestation of arrested development. All pornography reduces spiritual desire to Newtonian mechanics. All pornography, indulged long enough, hollows out sex to the point where even the horniest old Viagra-stoked goat is unable to physically enjoy the bodies of nubile young females.

(The entire article is well worth reading.)

Pornography is a serious problem in our society. Greedy businessmen hijack a God-given human desire and enslave a large fraction of the population for their own selfish gain.4 No one should trivialize the problem by proposing Hefner as any source of inspiration.

I vaguely recall from one of West's talks that he may have been involved in pornography before his (re)conversion. Perhaps his statements are part of such a recollection. Still, I can't understand why he would parallel Hefner with JP2. (On his website West rightly evaluates pornography.) On the other hand, it is easy to see how the MSM would magnify any misspoken word.5 At worst, this is an idiotic rhetorical move by Christopher West. At best this is West trying to appeal to more people and thinking rather naively that he can handle the media beast: West doesn't realize how easily attention-grabbing statements that work in a talk are taken out of context in today's slice-and-dice media culture... and thanks to ABC he's now learning really, really fast.

Either way, it is a genuine scandal. Christopher West should publicly clarify his position specifically in response to this article. Unfortunately whatever new statement he makes will not have nearly the reach of the old one.


1. I highly recommend Michael Waldstein's excellent introduction to his new translation of the work, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology Of The Body.

2. As if "prudish Victorian morality" were the demon to flee. Love and Responsibility actually says that such morality and today's pornographic culture have much more in common with each other than with authentic sexuality:

If any one of the above-mentioned purposes of marriage is considered without reference to the personalistic norm—that is to say, without taking into account of the fact that man and woman are persons—this is bound to lead to some form of utilitarianism in the first or second meaning of the word 'use'. To regard procreation in this way leads to the rigorist distortion, while the 'libidinistic' distortion is rooted in a similar attitude to the tertiary end of marriage—remedium concupiscentiae. (67)

The two meanings of 'use': (1) employ as a means to an end, the end being procreation, and (2) enjoy. Thus both "prudish Victorian morality" and hedonism ignore the full reality of the person in favor of using the person either merely for procreation or merely for pleasure. Maybe West's invocation of "prudish Victorian morality" is rhetorical?

3. Extended quotation:

The human body is an authentic part of the truth about man, just as its sensual and sexual aspects are an authentic part of the truth about human love. But it would be wrong to let this part obscure the whole—and this is what often happens in art.

However, the essence of what we call pornography in art is further to seek. Pornography is a marked tendency to accentuate the sexual element when reproducing the human body or human love in a work of art, with the object of inducing the reader or viewer to believe that sexual values are the only real values of the person, and that love is nothing more than the experience, individual or shared, of those values alone. This tendency is harmful, for it destroys the integral image of that important fragment of human reality which is love between man and woman. For the truth about human love consists always in reproducing the interpersonal relationship, however large sexual values may loom in that relationship. Just as the truth about man is that he is a person, however conspicuous sexual values are in his or her physical appearance.

A work of art must get at this truth, no matter how deeply it has to go into sexual matters. If it shows a tendency to distort this it can only give a distorted picture of reality. But pornography is not just a lapse or an error. It is a deliberate trend. If a distorted image is endowed with the power and prestige of artistic beauty there is a still greater likelihood that it will take root and establish itself in the mind and the will of those who contemplate it. For the human will often shows a great susceptibility to deformed images of reality. But for this very reason, when we condemn pornography we should often put the blame on immaturity and impurity, the absence of 'emotional shame' in those responsible for it. (192-3)

4. Funny how silent liberals largely are about this manifestation of "evil capitalism."

5. On yet another hand, ABC seems to have faithfully transmitted West's nuanced stances on oral sex, etc. So one wonders where the fault lies.

David Wright and Ely Brown, "Sex Sermonist's Heroes: Pope John Paul II and Hugh Hefner: Devout Catholic Christopher West Lays Out Unexpected Vision of What Sex Can Mean for Christians," ABC News Nightline (May 7, 2009).

Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).

Read Mercer Schuchardt, "The Cultural Victory of Hugh Hefner," GodSpy (October 1, 2003), originally published as "Play Boy! The Cultural Victory of Hugh Hefner" in re:generation quarterly (July 1, 2001). The quotation I've omitted is from the June 2001 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

News Flash: Women Are Different than Men

A couple recent examples of our willful blindness of the unique nature of women.

There's a provocative article in The Atlantic on "The Case Against Breast-Feeding." Hanna Rosin argues that studies showing the benefits of breast-feeding are exaggerated. It's a challenge to design a study that isolates breast-feeding from other factors accidentally correlated to it.

Nearly all the researchers I talked to pointed me to a series of studies designed by Kramer, published starting in 2001. Kramer followed 17,000 infants born in Belarus throughout their childhoods. He came up with a clever way to randomize his study, at least somewhat, without doing anything unethical. He took mothers who had already started nursing, and then subjected half of them to an intervention strongly encouraging them to nurse exclusively for several months. The intervention worked: many women nursed longer as a result. And extended breast-feeding did reduce the risk of a gastrointestinal infection by 40 percent. This result seems to be consistent with the protection that sIgA provides; in real life, it adds up to about four out of 100 babies having one less incident of diarrhea or vomiting. Kramer also noted some reduction in infant rashes. Otherwise, his studies found very few significant differences: none, for instance, in weight, blood pressure, ear infections, or allergies—some of the most commonly cited benefits in the breast-feeding literature.

Both the Kramer study and the sibling study did turn up one interesting finding: a bump in “cognitive ability” among breast-fed children. But intelligence is tricky to measure, because it’s subjective and affected by so many factors. Other recent studies, particularly those that have factored out the mother’s IQ, have found no difference at all between breast-fed and formula-fed babies. In Kramer’s study, the mean scores varied widely and mysteriously from clinic to clinic. What’s more, the connection he found “could be banal,” he told me—simply the result of “breast-feeding mothers’ interacting more with their babies, rather than of anything in the milk.”

The IQ studies run into the central problem of breast-feeding research: it is impossible to separate a mother’s decision to breast-feed—and everything that goes along with it—from the breast-feeding itself. (68)

What I want to know: why does nature have to be backed-up by science? Why isn't the presumption in favor of nature? Infant formula is the alternative. But why do we think we can synthesize a breast-milk alternative? Assuming we can even know all the components adequately, what makes us think we can put them together in exactly the way that nature has arranged?

Why are we talking about whatever we put in the infant's stomach as if it in itself has got to be the magic elixir? Isn't the whole culture of breast-feeding what should be under consideration? This would mean that benefits of a mother's interaction with her child in breast-feeding would be a legitimate benefit of breast-feeding.

This is human life we're talking about. It has a wholeness whose depths we can only guess at. As members of a consumeristic society, we think we can pick and choose elements of it as would the color of an automobile or the flavor of ice cream.

The underlying agenda becomes clear near the end of the article:

About seven years ago, I met a woman from Montreal, the sister-in-law of a friend, who was young and healthy and normal in every way, except that she refused to breast-feed her children. She wasn’t working at the time. She just felt that breast-feeding would set up an unequal dynamic in her marriage—one in which the mother, who was responsible for the very sustenance of the infant, would naturally become responsible for everything else as well. (69-70, emphasis added)

Again, perhaps the natural dynamic of motherhood is for the one responsible for the infant's sustenance to be closest to the child. But we all know that inequality is the greatest evil in the world. If we don't, we of course need to take more sensitivity courses. So, let's make a point of using our screwdrivers as hammers and vice versa.

The Columbia University alumni magazine has an article about the very real problem women in the military being sexually harassed.

Spranger’s experience [of harassment] is hardly unusual among military women. According to several recent surveys conducted by researchers at veterans centers, nearly a third of female troops are raped by their comrades, while some three-quarters are sexually assaulted, and 90 percent are sexually harassed. “The harassment got to be so commonplace that I didn’t even think it was wrong,” Spranger says. “Anyway, it went up so high in the ranks there was nobody to tell.” (14)

It comes as a big surprise only to those wearing ideological blinders that men treat women differently. They treat women differently because they are different. Simply awarding them a different "role" doesn't change their essence. Why did we need a study to tell us this? Look around at the world. From time immemorial, armies have been followed by prostitutes. Sex and war have a natural tendency to go together.

It's well-known that the male hormone, testosterone, increases aggression, and that aggression increases testosterone.1 So why would we ever think that men in combat would behave any better than men in civilian life? Certainly harassment is wrong and the men doing it are wrong. But what else would we expect? These guys are put into extremely tense, life-threatening situations. Men in bad situations have a pronounced tendency to act badly. Can't we consider this an empirical fact without commissioning a study to "scientifically" access it?

In the military, curbing sexual harassment has about as much chance of success as curbing profanity. No matter how many sensitivity courses you force men into, they have natural tendencies (for good or bad) that no one will ever eliminate except by denaturing or killing the patient.

Instead of banging at the square peg to get it into the round hole, perhaps we should look for a square hole.

But putting women in the military is more than just a problem of misunderstanding men. Much more importantly it's a problem of misunderstanding women. A couple later paragraphs are remarkable on this score:

Sergeant Marti Ribeiro, a wife and mother who entered the Air Force to follow family tradition [!], was relentlessly harassed throughout her deployment in 2003. So when she was redeployed in 2006 and sent to Afghanistan as a combat correspondent with the Army’s all-male 10th Mountain Division, she resolved that this time would be different.

“Excuse my language,” says Ribeiro, “but I decided to be a bitch. So I stepped off the plane into my own personal hell. Yes, I was able to put up a wall, but at a price. My wall became thicker and thicker. I’m normally a very bubbly person, but that disappeared behind the wall, and to this day I don’t know if I’ve ever regained that part of my personality.” (15)

We learn later (17) that Ribeiro was trying to follow in the footsteps of her father and grandfather, both officers. I can only wonder how the tradition-minded men in her family could imagine letting a woman fight in combat. Further, why would a mother, with any sense of responsibility to her children voluntarily put herself in harm's way? Out of a sense of family tradition? (Strange family that has a tradition of mothers abandoning their children.) The mind boggles.

In the second paragraph, we see how a woman in the military has to change herself to suit her new role. It would be interesting to compare this to the experience of how men adjust to the military, but it's clear it wouldn't be nearly the same transformation, if only for the reason that very few men aptly describe themselves in terms like "bubbly."

Sexual harassment in the military is a very real problem. But the real question this publication's ideological commitments2 don't allow it to ask: why are we putting women in these situations in the first place? It's as if we feel obliged to deny that there are distinct natures in the world by proving that women have no essential nature.

The politically correct orthodoxy assumes that everyone should be able to step in to any role they want, and then forces everyone else to conform to that choice. The problem, this orthodoxy tells us, is not the institution of women in the military, but with the men who won't accept them.

In our egalitarian, individualistic society, an abundance of choices is held to indicate our freedom. But what if most of those choices lead not to our happiness, but to our misery? Wouldn't elimination of those bad possibilities better enable us to thrive? Highway guardrails are not restrictions on freedom, but better enable us to get where we're going safely.

It is only in acknowledging the distinct natures of men and women that we can help them to excel in the respective roles for which they are naturally suited and that are their natural glory.


1. It seems wisest for children's primary caregivers not to be pumped up with testosterone whether by nature or by profession.

2. Whenever I feel guilty about not donating to my alma mater, a quick look at the alumni magazine cures me.

Helen Benedict, "Betrayal in the Field," Columbia (Spring 2009), 12-17.

Hanna Rosin, "The Case Against Breast-Feeding" The Atlantic (April 2009), 64-70.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Dawkins's Dune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Aristotle, Physics II.1.