Archive for category Science, Religion, or Both

Time in a Nutshell

Get some perspective!

(hat-tip to student Ryan B.!)

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Is Philosophy Stupid?

Have a look and see what you think:

You can get the notes and background for this talk here.

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Recent discussion on the state of the humanities (and science)

There has been a more high profile than usual discussion about the humanities in the general press. Some links:

NYTimes: As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry

New Yorker: Adam Gopnik, Why Teach English?

Wall Street Journal: Lee Siegel, Who Ruined the Humanities?

New Republic: Stephen Pinker, Science is Not Your Enemy

New Republic: Leon Wieseltier, Crimes Against Humanities

Chronicle of Higher Education: David A. Hollinger, The Wedge Driving Academe’s Two Families Apart



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Science, Non-Science, and Philosophy

Harvey Mansfield ends his lengthy meditation on the matter like so:

I mention philosophy at the end, but I have been discussing it throughout. To consider science and non-science together, and in a whole that includes both, is neither science nor non-science but above them, so that each is made aware of the other. Philosophy is then still the queen of the university, sovereign over the specialties. It cannot assume that it will succeed in bringing harmony, and in any case it must face the additional challenge to reason made by revelation. As Allan Bloom emphasized, the concern for value commitment in our time is in truth a kind of return to religion, a desire for charisma if not grace. I end with a warning: the philosophy I have been advocating, or trying to introduce, a philosophy with relevance combined with ambition, is to be found in the Great Books, nowhere else. And a parting shot: you probably won’t find it in the Department of Philosophy.

The gauntlet has been thrown down.



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On Books, Zubiri, and Serendipity

Alas, second-hand bookshops are closing daily, driven out of business by the combination of a general decline in reading, the internet and that most characteristic of all modern British institutions, the charity shop. Booksellers tell me that 90 per cent of their overheads arise from their shops, and 90 per cent of their sales from the internet. Except for the true antiquarian dealers, whose customers are aficionados of the first state and the misprint on page 287, second-hand bookshops make less and less economic sense. […]

Browsing among the shelves is rewarding in a way that surfing the internet (the largest second-hand books website searches through 140 million volumes for sale, or says it does – I haven’t counted) can never be. Of course, if there is a particular book that you want urgently, the internet is a wonder: you type in the title, you pay by credit card, the book arrives the next day. There is no need any longer to resort to the bookfinder, that strange professional searcher after needles in haystacks, who guards his sources more jealously than any journalist and, I suspect, would not reveal them under torture.

But serendipity is the greatest pleasure of browsing, and there is no substitute for being able to hold the physical book in one’s hand. […]

The joy of finding something that one did not know existed, and that is deeply interesting or connected in a totally unexpected way with one’s intellectual interests of the moment, is one of the great serendipitous rewards of browsing, and one unknown to those who take a purely instrumental view of bookshops, leaving them the moment they discover that they do not have the very book that they want.

–Excerpted from Theodore Dalrymple, “Why Second-Hand Bookshops are Just My Type,” The Telegraph 7:00 AM GMT 03 DECEMBER 2012


In October of 1999, my wife and I visited San Francisco to celebrate our 40th birthdays (serendipitiously,we were born on the same day). We stayed at a lovely place, Hotel Boheme, in the North Beach section of the city, which we picked because of its literary flavor, its ties to the Beat writers, and its promotion of area book shops. We are book collectors – not in a “serious” or professional way, but we love to book shop. On this particular trip, we attended the San Francisco Book Festival – which was okay, but nothing in comparison to our visit to City Lights bookstore along with several other used and antiquarian book shops. Oh, we did other things, too. We went to the San Francisco Art Museum of Modern Art and heard some jazz out on the plaza (I remember that a poor musician cracked his bass while playing a Dexter Gordon tune…sad!). We spent too much time in an art gallery and came dangerously close to buying a $14,000 painting (it would have been paid for via some credit company and would have meant the kids couldn’t have gone to college) – we wisely took a long walk across the Golden Gate Bridge to clear our heads (and never went back to the gallery).

I raise this last recollection in particular to indicate that we have a proclivity to impulse buying. And that leads me to the topic of this post. One evening during this trip we were walking back to the hotel to freshen up before dinner (we were going to an Asian-Fusion place whose name I cannot remember now), and we passed a little used book shop. We cannot resist. The place, as I remember it, was quite small. Just in side the door was one vertical shelf of philosophy books (the primary target of all my book shopping). Now, even back then, I already had a pretty good philosophy library and it was pretty unlikely that I would find anything surprising on the shelves. Yes, books I didn’t own, but not books or authors that I had no idea about. But this day was different. A book on the shelf stood out to me. It was blue cloth (but the smooth, almost leather-like cloth binding you don’t see much anymore) with gold stamping. I had never heard of this book’s author, let alone the book. It was published, I could see on the spine, by The Catholic University of America Press. I confess to a critical affinity to Catholic things, so I picked up the book and flipped it open to a random page. I read and read (as my wife sidled up to remind me we had a dinner reservation and needed to get going – always hard to do in a bookstore). I read some more. I formed a conclusion: I had absolutely NO idea what this philosopher was talking about! Here in my hands was a book, a nice book as an object, pleasant to hold and to look at, whose contents were completely baffling. Of course, I simply had to have it! And so I bought it, dropped it off in my suitcase, and headed to dinner.

Upon returning home, I had one more look at this book, confirmed my incomprehension, and squeezed it onto a shelf among the hundreds (thousands?) of other books I have but have not read. (As I say, I like books. I did not, however, say I read them all. As one wit put it, “We buy books not to read them but to love them.”)

Time passes. I am working at this point for a division of the US Steel corporation on various business process reengineering projects. We get a job in Spain. I am excited. My mom was a Spanish teacher, and I had “studied” Spanish in high school and college, always wishing I were fluent but never diligent enough (or provided with sufficient opportunity) to become so. But perhaps here was an opportunity to work on my poor Spanish at least a little (and it did, bad as it was, come in handy on more than one occasion on the job). In preparation for the trip, I dug out a few Spanish books I had, and coincidentally I noticed my San Francisco purchase, that nice blue book: On Essence by Xavier Zubiri.

On Essence 11aYjiir1vL._AA160_

I did a quick internet search on “Zubiri.” Okay, first – I admit – I got a little sidetracked by links to pics of actress Diana Zubiri (no relation).

This is one of the few photos available I dare to post of this lovely young actress.

This is one of the few photos available I dare to post of this lovely young actress.

But I eventually collected myself and managed to find out a little about the philosopher. Spanish. Basque, really, and we were headed to Basque country on this job we were doing. I found out that he had written a number of books and that there were books of his course notes published posthumously (he died in 1983). Did I mention that I like books? So I thought maybe, if I got a chance, that I’d check out any bookstores near where we would be working to see if any of this thinker’s books were on their shelves, indeed, whether anyone had ever even heard of this philosopher, even in Spain.

By the way, this job we were doing was scheduled to be a month-long affair, taking us to various cities in northern and eastern Spain. We landed in Aviles airport on September 10, 2001. The next day, as we were having lunch, the universe changed.

It was strange to be so far from home when the attacks happened, frightening to be unable to contact my wife during those first critical hours, touching to be greeted on the job (yes, we tried to keep working) and in the street by Spaniards who treated me as tenderly and compassionately as if they had learned my beloved mother had just died. Everything became disoriented and disorienting, but like people do we kept moving forward, treating the abnormal with a massive dose of normalcy to try to alleviate its effects. We worked. And, when I had a chance, I went to book shops.

I asked around about this guy, “Zubiri”. I wasn’t, of course, at a philosophy conference, but rather in the company of steel manufacturers and engineers. But people have heard about philosophers, no? No, not in this case. Our first stop on the job was in Gijón, which I knew was near Oviedo, which has a university. I drove down one day to check out the book shops, and I did indeed find some of Zubiri’s books (including Sobre la Esencia, the book whose translation I had gotten in San Francisco).

Sobre la Esencia 41jWYRVs+XL._SL500_AA300_

No one in the book shop knew much about him (or at least that was my take-away from Spanglish conversations). But okay: Now I had the Spanish original of the book that I had found incomprehensible in English. The problem is that – have I mentioned this? – my Spanish is poor. How did I think having the Spanish text would help? And all this fuss about a philosopher whom no one (as far as I knew) had ever heard of and whose ideas I could not understand (after what small attempt I had made even to try). Ah, but I like books!

Our next stop took us to Bilbao and to the Basque region. I figured I’d try again, see what other books I might find. I asked around: “Have you heard of Zubiri?” The answers I got surprised me: “Do you mean the Zubiri shoe store? Or the Zubiri market? Or the Zubiri movie theater?”




As it turns out, Zubiri – as unfamiliar a name as it was to me – is quite a common Basque name.

shop ioap88

But no one seemed to know about Zubiri the philosopher. I did find some more books, though, in this or that shop. I bought them because now it was simply a matter of collecting the books of this unknown thinker just to have them and just because I had no reasonable expectation of coming back this way again any time soon.  I threw my purchases in the ever-more-weighty suitcase, all the while recognizing that I would not take the time to become proficient enough in Spanish to understand them and guessing that even if I did, I would not understand them anyway. It was all about the books themselves. I would treat them, I suppose, as if they were knick-knacks, decorating the walls of our home, and nothing more.

My project teammate and I returned to Pittsburgh 28 days after we left to a mostly empty airport. We were greeted by the customs officials as if we were somehow returning war heroes. In those strange days, people just wanted each other, no matter who they were, to get home to their families. That was all that seemed to really matter.

Truth be told, before all this happened, before we left for this work trip, before 9/11, I had already been considering leaving US Steel. I had very much enjoyed my time there and had learned a lot, but I was starting to feel “hungry” intellectually. I had heard about this job for a program manager for a group called the Philadelphia Center for Religion and Science. The position entailed directing a grant program to foster “the constructive engagement of science and religion,” as its motto put it back then. I had thought that such a job would allow me to apply my business-world experience while getting fed intellectually once more. I didn’t, myself, have a “science and religion problem,” per se. But I thought I’d meet scientists in various fields, theologians, and maybe even some philosophers. I had applied for the job some months before, and in fact I was contacted by PCRS just prior to leaving for Spain. In that interim, though, things had changed at work. I had been tapped to head up this business process assessment initiative and I had made commitments to go to Spain, etc. I couldn’t bring myself to pursue the PCRS job at that time. I told PCRS that I was doing this job that would last a month and that I did not want to hold up their search process but that if they were still interested in a month they could contact me when I got back.

When I finally did arrive home, there was a message from PCRS waiting for me. They were still interested. My wife and I talked this over – as I suppose many people did after the events of 9/11, we were questioning what was important, what really matters, and how we should spend our lives. Neither of us thought it was in business. Both of us found education to be our first love. So I agreed to be interviewed for the PCRS job. I made a deal with the executive director of PCRS that I would use my frequent flier miles to get a ticket to Harvard University, where a conference on science and religion was taking place and at which PCRS was doing some programming. PCRS would put me up in a hotel and could interview me during the conference. Worse comes to worst, I would at least have had the chance to hear an interesting conference on a subject that I had not devoted much thought to. Well, my three-day interview turned into a job.

Allow me to fast-forward. The program, called the Local Societies Initiative (LSI), required me to expand the grant-making to Europe (and eventually around the world). Eventually, a group from Madrid applied for a grant. I had the opportunity to travel there to work with this group, but I made one special stop. I had learned that the Fundación Xavier Zubiri was located in Madrid. I had come to learn, in bits and pieces, that Zubiri wrote on religion, Christianity in particular but not exclusively, that he had studied oriental languages, and that he studied with De Broglie and Schrödinger as well. A science-and-religion man!


Maybe someone at this foundation would be interested in learning about our grant program? I found the address, got inside the building, went up the 5th floor, and knocked on the door.

Xavier Zubiri at his desk

Xavier Zubiri at his desk

No answer. I dropped my business card inside the door and went away.

Again, time passed. My contacts in Madrid had, as it turned out, connections with the Zubiri Foundation. In fact, one of my colleagues in Madrid had written on Zubiri. He assisted me with opening a conversation with members of the Zubiri Foundation, eventually leading to a successful application for one of our grants. In the process, I had the opportunity to make a return visit to Madrid and got to visit the Foundation. I now have a photograph of me standing next to the desk where Zubiri worked on the book Sobre la Esencia.

with Antonio González (left) and Diego Gracia

with Antonio González (left) and Diego Gracia

After about a decade, I left my job at what became the Metanexus Institute to return to teaching. I was offered the opportunity to teach a course entitled “The Human Person” at Saint Joseph’s University, a Jesuit school in Philadelphia. After a round or two of teaching this course, I insinuated into the syllabus Zubiri’s last work, Man and God (which he worked on until his death at that desk I stood next to).


In the intervening years, I had come not only to understand Zubiri and his philosophical project, but to think that he is perhaps the most profound unsung thinker of the 20th century, a philosopher whose works have much to contribute to our understanding of science, religion, and most importantly ourselves. This coming year, I will be offering a course entitled “Philosophy and Liberation,” which will explore the work of Ignacio Ellacuría, who completed Man and God from Zubiri’s notes, and Enrique Dussel, a thinker deeply influenced by Zubiri. Zubiri, as you can imagine by now, is not an “unknown” thinker at all in Spanish speaking countries, and indeed, through Ellacuría’s work and life (and martyrdom) is highly influential even in the sphere of political praxis.

This story of my growing relationship with the thought of Xavier Zubiri, lasting more than a decade, is meant to highlight one thing: the transcendent importance of used/antiquarian bookstores. Dalrymple, in the piece I cited to begin this essay, points out that the “joy of finding something that one did not know existed, and that is deeply interesting or connected in a totally unexpected way with one’s intellectual interests of the moment, is one of the great serendipitous rewards of browsing.” Literally, such serendipity has changed my life. My thinking about the history of Western philosophy, about the human condition, and about the nature of reality, has become thoroughly infused with Zubirian ideas. I not only understand his ideas better (with still much, much left to learn, I hasten to add lest I present myself as an expert!), but I understand better the philosophical problems I have always wrestled with. And all because I have a certain book-lust and serendipitously found a book that caught my eye that I never otherwise would have known existed. We will be diminished if the bookstores go the way of the dinosaurs.


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A basic insight on metaphysics

From James Chastek at Just Thomism:

Metaphysics cannot have first principles, i.e. things it takes for granted as true from which it reasons. This does not mean that nothing is self-evident or that there is no basis for things, but it does mean raising the question whether there is any such thing. On this account, there are two modes of science: those that are never perfectly self-reflective or self-aware, but simply take things for granted that are invisible to them (mathematics, natural science) and whatever inquiry is perfectly self-reflective, such that it can even see and raise questions about its foundations. This is why those of a metaphysical bent can get so frustrated by mathematicians and scientists, who simply cannot do what they do without taking principles for granted that they are more or less oblivious to. The pay-off for this absence of self-reflection is great power, exact knowledge, and progressive advances in the discipline. But the metaphysician will always be bothered by a certain sense that there is a forgetfulness of the most important things in science and mathematics, just as the scientist and mathematician will always be bothered by the inability of metaphysical inquiries (philosophy, philosophy of mind, etc.) to make definitive and widely accepted advances in knowledge.

If we are ever going to make some sense of the recent discussions of the relation between science and religion, on the one hand, and science and philosophy, on the other, we are going to have to sharpen our philosophical skills. Many times proponents of one side or the other in these debates will make statements that they purport to be “scientific,” when in fact they are metaphysical.  In a similar way, sometimes a claim will be dismissed as “just philosophical” when in fact it is a claim that can be investigated via the methodologies of science. And in all cases there may be some things that must be taken “on faith,” so to speak, of certain enterprises are to get off the ground.

Chastek’s point above has a long history. The best place to begin thinking this through is at the beginning.  And that beginning was more than 2500 years ago in Greece, at the time of the so-called “presocratic” philosophers.  It is interesting to note when an era is defined or given a proper name.  The “middle ages,” for instance, designates a time between the classical era and the modern period, and this designation leaves the impression that not much was going on during this transitional period (by the way, this “transitional period” lasted over 1000 years, from about 400 A.D. to 1500 A.D. Fat chance nothing happened).  In this case, the “presocratic” philosophers derive their name from Socrates (469-399 B.C.), and the thinker who generally gets pride of place for being “first” in the lineage of Western philosophers is Thales of Miletus, whose dates are given as 624-547 B.C., about 150 years give or take, before Socrates.  There were many others, among them Anaximenes, Pythagorias, Democritus, Xenophanes, Empedocles, Parmenides, Zeno, et. al., and they produced insights that in one form or another are still with us today (however greatly elaborated). So calling Thales and these other thinkers “presocratics” is a little like calling Civil War generals Grant and Lee “preschwarzkopfians” after General Norman Schwarzkopf of “Gulf War I” fame. (Or “pre-Petraeusians” or something like that, before General David Petraeus.)

In Thales’ day, it was a general idea of the public that everything that exists is made up of just four basic elements:  fire, air, earth, and water.  What I mean by a general idea is something like a background notion.  This proposition that everything is ultimately made of fire, air, earth, or water was not something that I would imagine most people thought about on a daily basis.  The idea was just “there” in the atmosphere, so to speak, much like if you were to stop and ask people on the street today what everything is made of they would likely reply “atoms” or maybe “matter”–but they don’t go on and on about it as a rule.  It is like the “question” to the “answer” on the game show Jeopardy: Answer:  “Everything is made of it.”  Question: “What are fire, air, earth, and water?”  (or “What are atoms?”)  Unless you are on the game show, the issue doesn’t usually come up.  You need to know about the four elements to understand why Thales in particular (and philosophers in general) can be seen to be a bit weird.  Instead of resting content with the four elements as the fundament of all that is, Thales asked himself a strange question:  But what are the four elements made up of?  Maybe you had a similar experience in Catechism class or Sunday school when, being a bit of a philosopher yourself, you asked, after being told that “God made everything”:  But who made God?  It’s just not asked!  Once you get to God, that’s it.  That’s the end of the line.  Well, it was something like that for Thales to ask about what the four elements were made of.  In fact, his question is an instance one of the pre-eminent philosophical questions:  What is it really?  “What is it?”  “Well, it is something made up of fire, air, earth, or water.”  “Yes, but what is it really? What are the elements that make up this thing made up of?”

We can see immediately that there is something about the philosophical project that is at odds with the received opinions of the many, with the common sense of the polis or the community.  In some ways, even before the explicit philosophical question, there was already a tension, let’s call it, between appearance and reality.  There appear to be many things, but the reality is that all of those many things are made up of just the four elements.  And Thales takes this a step further and says that to the common sense there are just the four elements, but in reality there is but one thing that underlies them all. What makes him think that there is one thing behind the many and to wonder about it is a good question.

What was that one thing that was at the root of the many things that appeared to be?  For Thales, the answer is water.  For Thales, the four elements were essentially manifestations of just one element.  Now how did Thales come to this conclusion?  He made some observations:  he noticed that water could take on the form of the other elements.  When water was very cold, it was hard, solid, like earth.  When water was whipped up and became misty, it hung in the atmosphere like air.  And when it was very excited, it could burn just like fire.  Thales could test this hypothesis, couldn’t he?  He could try to see if he could get, say, fire into a liquid state or air into a solid state.  To him, it appeared that only water was malleable enough to take on the forms of the other elements.  And this inference leads to another of the principal philosophical questions:  Why?

There followed on after Thales a string of thinkers who pondered the same question.  Anaximines, for instance, drew the conclusion that air (breath–pneuma) was the root of all that is by conducting an experiment of sorts.  You can try it, too:  Purse your lips like you would do to whistle, and then blow some air against the palm of you hand.  What is the general temperature?  It is cool…like water (and, if it were even colder, like earth).  Now, open your mouth wide like you are going to say “aaahhh” for the doctor and blow on the palm of your hand.  What is the general temperature now?  It is warm, like fire (okay, a not very hot fire, but still…).  Via this experiment, Anaximenes determined that the reason why the basic common sense elements can take their various forms was due to the processes of “condensation” and “rarefaction.”  In fact, Anaximenes discovered an insight that is still with us today, namely that quantitative change can result in qualitative change, a principle still fundamental to sciences as diverse as physics and sociology. It is interesting to note here that, for Thales and Axaximenes, the foundational elements and the processes that accounted for them were “physical” or “natural.”  It would be going much too far to claim that these presocratics had a sophisticated theory about all this–including what might be meant by terms like “physical” or “natural”–these are really anachronisms.  But you can see this point more clearly if you contrast the views of Thales and Anaximenes with that of another presocratic thinker, Anaximander.

Anaximander was much more radical in his thinking.  He reasoned that the four common elements had to be made up of something other than one of the four basic elements, for how could water be fire or air be earth?  In the end, he thought, all things would have returned to water unless there were something like “opposition” preventing it.   It had to be the case that there is something prior to the elements that, when acted upon in certain ways, manifested itself as this or that element.  Anaximander called that from which the elements were derived apeiron, the “unlimited” or the “indefinite” or the “boundless indeterminate.”  The “force,” if that is the right word, he named “injustice,” or strife that is the clash of opposites.  This is a very interesting and important attempt to answer the questions, what are things really? and why? The solutions of Thales and Anaximenes were derived from the “observable” world.  We have to put that term “observable” in the scare-quotes because, of course, they never primarily observed fire, air, earth, and water; rather, they observed houses and trees and ships and grape vines and mountains, other Greeks and lots of things besides.   But their solutions derived from the observable world in taking water or air as the root element and the basis of all there is.  Anaximander’s solution strayed from the “observable” world, even with the allowances we have made for that term.  For how would one ever observe something indefinite or unlimited or boundless?  Even if you were to look out in the distance and observe an object that you could not identify (which would be, in that sense, “indefinite”) it would hardly be unlimited or boundless.  It–whatever it is–would be bound at least by the background in which it is observed.  Otherwise, it would so completely blend with or blot out everything else that you could not observe it at all.  So while in some sense air or water is a “thing” or a “something,” the apeiron really is no specific thing, no thing at all, even nothing.  Even though Anaximander reasons starting from the observables, and even though he seeks a simple explanation, reducing the many observables to one basis (monism), his solution is no longer “natural” or “physical” but now “meta-physical.”  I will leave aside all the things we should say about this term “metaphysical”, but for the moment I am just remarking that on Anaximander’s way of understanding reality, there is no possible observable that could be at the basis of all things.  Instead, a force of some kind must be at work on “something” that is not yet any thing until the force works on it.  And when it does, then things begin to manifest (and not the apeiron).

Now that’s a deep idea but it is reasonable given what was thought at the time.  The philosophical–really, the proto-scientific–issue was a question of the deep-structure of reality.  Anaximander reasoned that the naturalistic answers that had been proposed were not satisfying, indeed, that they could not ever satisfy the question.  You could forever ask what the next proposed solution really was and why it was purportedly able to ground everything else.  You say the four elements are really water…but what is water really and why does it sometimes manifest itself as air and other times as fire or earth?  Anaximander was thinking that you could never hit bottom if you keep trying to gain a “naturalistic” or “physical” basis (remember: we can’t take these terms too seriously at this point…they are undefined by these thinkers and at this point in time) for nature or physis.  “Something” outside of things had to be the ground of things (again with the scarequotes, but you see how hard it is to talk about apeiron).

If I may return to what I think I heard in Sunday school again, there is an analogy here.  We were taught that everything that is was created by God (we, I have to admit, did not talk about how God might have done this and whether there might be a conflict with science).  But if we were to ask, as I am quite sure I must have, “but who created God,” we would be told that the question really doesn’t make sense.  God is not a thing like all other things.  Every actual thing is limited in some way (you can tell where one thing leaves off and another starts up).  But God is unlimited, both in space and in time.  God is everywhere and always.  But “something” (see what I mean about the analogy…?) that is everywhere is nowhere in particular, and “something” that was and is and is to come is no-when in particular, and so is not just some thing, not just something, but otherwise, and therefore very hard to talk about in a way that captures what “it” is really.

So we can see two alternative sorts of problems.  If you want to be a “naturalist” like Thales or Anaximines, then you will face the problem of the infinite regress of questioning:  but what is that made of and why?  If you want to be a “metaphysician” like Anaximander (or perhaps like a Sunday school teacher) then you have a technique for avoiding the infinite regress, but you will also find it very hard to say anything definite. (This is the reason why idolatry is the premiere sin, upon which, ultimately, all others rest, and why it is so hard to avoid committing)  What can you say definitively about the “indefinite”?  Which way is right?  Which way do you lean?  Even at this point, we can  begin to see the battle lines forming for the evolution vs. intelligent design debate that won’t take place for a couple of millennia. When the evolutionists propose only natural causes, those that hold to ID find the answer unsatisfying–the fundamental question remains:  but how did it all get here?  But if the proponents of ID have to rely on the supernatural to explain things, then those who hold to naturalistic explanations have a good point when they complain that the ID proponents are not saying anything definite or observable or provable or even meaningful.

And this is the reason science and religion usually win out over metaphysics. We have always wanted to understand ourselves and the world around us, but not mainly just because we can. I think we mainly want to understand ourselves and the world around us so that we can do things, so that we can get what we want. Techne – knowing how – is always bound up with nous – knowing what is. Since the advent of modern science, technology has been moving full speed ahead. But there is also our desire know know why things are the way they are and what that means for us, for our desires, our hopes, our fears. So even though its demise had been predicted since the rise of modern science, religion, though not the same as it ever was, is still as strong as its ever been. The purport to bring that questioning to a close with some real answers.

Thus both science and religion (at least for most people) always need to get going, so to speak, which means they need to bring to a close radical self-questioning and self-reflection and start “doing things.” This is easy to see in religious people, who talk comfortably about faith. But it also can be seen in the views of some of our public scientists, such as Stephen Hawkings and Lawrence Krauss. You can easily see their exasperation with philosophy (or, what is the same thing, ultimately, metaphysics). We just don’t “need it” anymore. We just don’t “need” to ask what we mean, in the case of Krauss, by “nothing.” We can, we techno-scientists, go about our business very well without asking ourselves these questions.

True enough. But some of us apparently cannot help ourselves. We wonder — it all begins with wonder, says Aristotle — about your business, both techno-science and creedal-religion, what it’s really for and what accounts for it and where it might be headed and what we might hope for. We are bothered, as Chastek puts it, that something in all your business has been lost or forgotten. Not just, though, in math and science but also in theology and religion. And, perhaps most importantly, we want to know for ourselves to the extent we are able what that might be.  Sometimes it appears that we’re given a stark choice: side with the techno-scientists or side with the religious adherents. Perhaps there is a real third alternative: the philosophical life and its metaphysical speculation. The scientists will yawn and the believers will scoff – that is, if they don’t do worse. But we philosophers might live happily anyway, even if we live on the run from scientists and believers, at least so long as the scientists and the believers don’t kill us all in the meantime. Maybe wonder and speculation is our best hope.

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How many worlds are THE REAL world?

There is an interesting and very informative conversation going on here about the implications of quantum mechanics and the plausibility of the multiple worlds interpretation. The discussion was seeded by a brief, informative, and mercifully clear article by physicist Stephen Barr. Barr is also participating in the discussion for the next couple of days, so check it out.

This particular bit of the exchange caught my attention, making me wonder about its implications for the project of Speculative Realism (particularly Quentin Meillassoux‘s complaints about “correlationism”):

Steve Barr to Josh Weiner:

I think I know what is bothering you, Josh.  As I said in reply to Wallace Forman (in the third paragraph), it all comes down to what the wavefunction of a system is.  One would like to be able to say that it is just a straightforward description of what is happening in the world, of the world as it really is, apart from what you or I know about it.  That leads straight to the Many Worlds picture, because the wavefunction typically contains descriptions of many alternative branches.  In the traditional or Copenhagen interpretation, one has a more modest view of what the wavefunction is: It is not simply “the world as it is”, but rather it encodes what some observers know or are in a position to assert about the world.  that is why heisenberg himself said that the mathematics of quantum mechanics “represents no longer the behavior of elementary particles, but rather our knowledge of this behavior”. And it is why Rudolf Peierls said, “the quantum mechanical description is in terms of knowledge.”

That raises a very important question — which, I think, is your question: What DOES describe “the world as it really is”?  Even if the wavefunction does not describe it, there must be some comprehensiove and complete and accurate description of physical reality — call it the “God’s eye view of things” (even though I don’t want to drag God back into the discussion).

In other words, what IS really going on when no one is looking? What if beings such as ourselves had never evolved?  What about regions of the universe that no human or other sentient organism is ever going to observe or make measurements of? What about what will be happening in the universe after all life has died out?  Good questions! The wimpy answer is that science cannot speak about things that cannot be observed, and what is going on in places that will never be observed is, by definition, something that cannot be observed! But that seems a pretty unsatisfactory answer.  The traditional Copehagen interpretation doesn’t give an answer.  I have an answer that satisfies me, and I give a very brief sketch of it in my reply to jrd261.  Here I will only say that I think that even in the context of the traditional interpretation of quantum mechanics there does exist an answer to the question “what is really going on in the world even when no observers are looking”. In other words, the traditional interpretation does NOT commit one to some form of subjectivism or Berkeleyan idealism, but can be consistent with a robust philosophical “realism”. But this is a tricky business, and probably beyond what can be discussed in such a forum.

FYI, this is, I think, the relevant part of Barr’s answer to jrd261, mentioned above:

In particular one could take the view that whenever there is a branching of the wavefunction (which happens when different parts of the wavefunction “decohere” from each other, in the technical jargon) all consciousness in the universe proceeds down just one branch. The wavefunction would continually branch, exactly as MWI says, but there would never be a situation where the same observer existed in several conscious versions in distinct branches.  In this picture, the wavefunction itself is constantly branching, like train tracks; and what happens at the “collapse of the wavefunction” is not really any change in the wavefunction — all the tracks are still there — but rather all consciousness proceeds down a single track, so to speak.   (What I have just described is my own speculative view of quantum mechanics, for what it’s worth.)

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The “New” “War” Between Science and Religion

The Chronicle published a rather pointless essay by Mano Singham, claiming that there is a “new war” between science and religion. This “new war” is different from the old one, the essay claims, in that the old war was over whether to teach evolution or creationism in the classroom. The (allegedly) “new” (alleged) “war” is over whether scientists (qua scientists?) should be accommodationists. To be an accommodationist, in this particular theater of war, is to allow that there are areas of human experience that might exceed the bounds of the natural sciences’ tools and techniques.

That this proposition is so glaringly, obviously true indicates that, in fact, this theater of war is all in Singham’s head. But not only his head, so let me explain.

The discussion has precious little to do with science. The matter of “accommodationism” does not arise in the pursuit of science in itself. It cannot arise, by definition. Science (if there even is such a singular thing…) can describe and possibly make some headway towards understanding our world by adopting–for lack of a better term–methodological naturalism. It undertakes to find out how much can be explained by natural processes/forces/laws. It assumes–how could it not?–that ultimately it will explain “everything” in such terms. It needs “accommodate” itself to nothing except what is.

But it must be remembered that this aim, itself, is a methodological telos. What I mean by this is that understanding at all implies–at least in principle–understanding the whole. This is not to say we understand nothing at all unless we understand the whole. Hardly! It simply means that the pursuit of scientific discovery and understanding will not quit unless we would somehow decide we have understood it all…the whole.

But we will not understand the whole. This is not because we are too stupid or will not live long enough (all that science & technology will probably do us in long before we get the big picture). No, we will not understand the whole because there is, in effect, no place to stand to get a fix on it–methodological naturalism included. There are well-known logical demonstrations of this truth. Because this is so, there will always remain areas of human experience that slip the grasp of scientific appropriation. That’s just the way it is.

Is this insight–plainly undeniable–a threat in any way to “science”? Of course not. The only threats to science are political (some regime tries to put a stop to scientific investigation) or natural (we get hit by an asteroid). And if these are the forces at war with science, then it’s nothing new.

But it is wrong to think that science is engaged in a war–especially with religion (and there is definitely no such singular thing). The goal of war is to defeat your enemy. This is not the goal of science. If there are limitations to the scientific endeavor, that which limits it is not thereby “at war” with it. And those who point out these limitations are not thereby the enemies of science. The limits of “science” are the very conditions of possibility for its undeniable power. By disciplining thought, we have, collectively, generated one of the great marvels of humankind–science. But there is still that which remains undisciplined and which will not (cannot) submit itself to these sorts of disciplinary practices. In fact, a lot of what matters in a rich human life falls under this latter description.

Nothing Singham writes is new or insightful. Nothing in his essay is scientific. The essay has a pathetic understanding of the issues it purports to deal with. As usual with the “new (nope!) atheists,” there is no evidence of understanding religion as anything other than an irrational belief in some Big-Being, another piece of furniture in the universe. Yes, there are people who think God is Big-Being. But I wouldn’t judge science by Soviet “science,” and I wouldn’t judge religion by televangelists.

There are people who do wretched things in the name of “religion.” But there are people who cloak themselves in the mantle of “science” to attempt to validate any old thought they might have; who spend their days figuring out how to kill and maim; who lie, cheat, and steal for recognition and cash. There were atheists who in the name of atheism brought about the deaths of 100 million people in the last century. If one lives by ad hominem, one dies by it, too.

Well, read the essay yourself. Read the endless stream of comments below it. Note the frequency of smugness on both sides of the issue (how many “duh’s,” how many “get real’s”).

My point is modest. Essays like Singham’s will draw comments and ignite passions. No one wants to feel his or her life’s work and deepest commitments are under attack. But most of us will agree, I think, if we take a moment to reflect, that the pursuit of science, the quest to understand our world through the eminently democratic means of the scientific method (if you take the trouble to learn them), needs to be valued and protected as much as possible from extraneous hindrances. But we also need to be aware of this “as much as possible.” Is the pursuit of science something absolute? Are there never moral responsibilities or consequences that need to be taken into account? Science has no “rights” to deny the expression of moral sentiments, nor can it pass in any way on the sources of those moral sentiments (science is “value free,” we are told). If you’ve noticed the IRB office on campus, you know how to answer these questions. And you know science qua science cannot answer them. And so you know, that although the science qua science needs accommodate nothing, we–we citizens, we human beings–need to accommodate all that goes into to our full human experience.

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SCIENCE! (and religion): So learn something already…

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From the latest New Yorker on the Science & Religion question…

Here’s what James Wood says we need…


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