Posts Tagged science

Believing in Angels

Guardian Angel

Guardian Angel

I am thinking of believing in angels.

The question I have is whether there is anything at all in occult philosophy, hermeticism, mysticism, theosophical ideas, magic, Kabbalah, angelology, Rosicrucianism, or any of that kind of thing. People study it, of course, and some people study it in mainstream academia — but as a matter of historical or cultural interest. Some few of those academics get caught up in it, such as Guénon, who became a Sufi, but generally people get an interest about these ideas without coming to hold any of these ideas.

Why don’t they hold them?

Because alchemy is not as effective in the “real” world as chemistry. Because astrology allows fewer accurate predictions of future events than astronomy. Because physics has been more testable than metaphysics. Materialism and naturalism are seriously successful.

How do you define “success”?

Success means being able to do things in the world, to predict future events from current conditions, to control the outcomes of situations more effectively than leaving things to chance. Our world was not built based on our knowledge of spirits, past life regressions, the vibrations of crystals, or the formation of tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. If you want to know something, then the methodology of science is the way to go.

Is science our Platonic cave?

If so, the cave is air conditioned and heated, has hot and cold running water, indoor plumbing, electric lights, refrigerated food, and the internet.

You are making a good case.

Yes, I think so.

But do you think that there is any kind of knowing that is not empirico-logical knowing? Or, in other words, are there alternative modes of logic or rationality?

I can’t see how. One can have an opinion on anything, but knowledge is that which can be demonstrated or rationally justified.

Can I know my wife loves me?

Do you mean, can you prove it beyond any doubt? I don’t think so. Can you prove it beyond a reasonable doubt? I think that is entirely possible. Proof does not have to mean mathematical proof in every case, but that admission does not entail that there are alternative rationalities.

What about things you cannot prove? What about the claim that Bach made better music than Justin Bieber?

Again, even though there is an element of taste (about which there is no disputing) involved, there is still a reasonable argument to be made that, assuming by “better” you mean (at least) more enduring, more culturally influential, that Bach made better music than Justin Bieber.

Not a completely knock down argument, though.

No, but a solid, reasonable claim.

Should I believe in angels?

Why should you? Have you ever seen one?

Did you see how little damage happened to my car last Friday when I hit a dear an near full speed on the interstate? I can’t help but think my Guardian Angel saved us.

You could help it, if you tried. You could say that your own quick reaction time and cool head, coupled with the geometry of the impact, etc., minimized the damage to your vehicle.

I suppose I could. But what if I really think an angel intervened on our behalf in that situation? Am I being unreasonable?

It would seem so. You are adding to the explanation more than is sufficient to explain the event.

I am not sure it is explainable.

We’ve just explained it. Look, if your Guardian Angel helped you out of the jam you were in, how did he…I’m sorry, is it a he?

No.

She?

No. It’s not like that. But you can say “he”.

Okay, if your Guardian Angel helped you out of the jam you were in, how did “he” do it? He did it by phenomenologically slowing things down for you, thus increasing your reaction time; by keeping you calm; by engineering the geometry of the impact in such a way to mitigate the damage to your vehicle. So why not just subtract the angel part? You’d have the same thing anyway.

Look, as you well know, I am not the most calm, cool-headed person you’ve ever met. My eyesight, especially at night, is not what it used to be. I was traveling fast. The deer was just there, all of a sudden. My vehicle by all rights ought to have been near-totaled. And my wife and I should be injured. But we are not.

Luck?

Hey, talk about believing things that are not susceptible of scientific investigation!

Okay, you are right. How about coincidence?

Again, not empirical, right?

Right. So I will stick with this claim: If we had the whole thing on tape, had you and your car wired to sensors and analytical devices sufficient for the assessment, we’d be able to completely reconstruct the event and causally explain every aspect of it.

“Sufficient for the assessment.” But what if there are no instruments sufficient for the assessment?

Maybe it is all an effect of quantum uncertainty, but quantum uncertainty, itself, is an empirical and rational framework for understanding. No angels. No ghosts. No gods.

What if it is just way more enjoyable to understand the world around me as filled with spirit beings of various sorts.

You mean, besides, angels, sprites, nymphs, faeries, demons, ghouls…that sort of thing?

Yes.

Really! You’ve never seen any of these things.

I’ve never seen an atom, either.

You could.

I’ve never seen a quark.

You could.

No, I could only see effects of the purported quarks. And it gets worse with superstrings. But scientists talk about them all the time.

Because they fit with the mathematics.

And you are absolutely sure that mathematics explains everything? Are there not qualitative aspects to reality that do not reduce to the quantitative? Is mathematics the only true language? Does mathematics really mirror reality?

It does seem fairly amazing how talking about the world mathematically helps you to predict, control, and do a lot of things you could not otherwise do if you talked about the world in another language, for instance, English.

A lot of things, yes. All the things we do? Hardly. In fact, the current craze to computer analyze every creative work misses the point of those works entirely. Physics didn’t explain why Socrates sat in prison awaiting his fate, and “digital humanities” will not help us engage any better with the Bard. Even gematria, the ancient practice of numerological analysis of texts, was not an end in itself. Even if it were to be mere projection, it still sparked reflection and insight. And even more simply, the stories of ancient myths were probably never meant to be taken literally (although some people did take them that way and some still do). They were heuristics to insight and wisdom.

They were a load of rubbish. They were attempts to explain the world that, as it turned out, were much worse than the way we explain the world now. It’s that simple.

So the imagination should be suppressed? But wasn’t it the imagination that kick-started the quest to understand in the first place?

Okay, if you want to put it that way. But we’ve moved on from those ancient stories. They perhaps were a ladder we needed to climb up, but now that we’re up we can safely kick it away.

Do you think we’ll ever find we can kick away science?

Never.

But if our scientific, technological framework is — and this is undeniable — threatening the very existence of the planet, i.e., if we’ve come to a crisis point, would you agree that we might need another way to think and understand if we are going to get through this ecological disaster?

No. Science will find a way out.

That is a risky bet. Science — and it is very complicit with capitalism — has organized the world in such a way as to foreclose — as you are doing now — on alternative frameworks. And that, in itself, bears a significant responsibility for our present disaster. There is — by definition — no morality attached to either modern science or capitalism. And why not? Because real morality cannot be quantified, algorithmized, or productized. And what goes for ethics, goes double for spirit.

Yeah, listen, you may as well throw out this computer you are working on because it was science that gave it to you.

Well, I very well may have to when the power goes off for the last time.

Such a pessimist!

You think I am crying “wolf”?

Yep. Well, no. You aren’t making it up. You believe it. But then again you believe in faeries and sprites.

I didn’t say I did. I was asking.

Well one thing I do know: if you are right about the impeding apocalypse, it won’t be faeries or sprites that save us.

I know. Only a God can save us.

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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 the relevance of metaphysics

Philosopher L.A. Paul:

[M]etaphysics works by developing a very wide range of models of these features of reality. This range is much wider than you normally see in the sciences, and we use this wide range of different models to enrich our capacity to understand the world in very different or competing ways. The idea is that by doing this we can gain a special sort of understanding of the world . Each different angle that each metaphysical model explores gives us a new way to think of that part of reality, and thus a new way to understand it. By thinking of the project of metaphysics as modeling different ways to think about the world, instead of thinking of it like the scientific project where the objective is arguably to get a unified picture of the world or a single true model of reality, we get a sense of how the main goal of philosophy, especially metaphysics, is the development of a kind of wisdom about ways the world might be. What I mean by this is that while there’s often a lot of derisive talk about science superseding philosophy as it gets a better and better picture of the world, the history of both fields shows much more exchange—e.g., while philosophy learns from the empirical discoveries and physical theory of science, science has often taken advantage of philosophy’s commitment to rigorously working out seemingly weird models of how the world might be.

Fabadooza, indeed!

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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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