Reading Notes 8/31/2014

John Grisham’s ‘The Summons’ has been a great read – fun, mysterious, page-turning, etc. It’s the first of his I’ve ever read, and I can see now why he’s pretty much at the top of the modern canon of fiction. I actually don’t know the last time I read a book that kept me up late to read it.

I stopped reading Phillip Roth’s ‘Letting Go’ – maybe I just don’t get it but honestly, that was one boring book. Now that I think about it, there is no maybe – I just didn’t get it. I try and read one fiction book at a time, so putting this book down was the reason I picked up ‘The Summons’

.Brian Greene’s explanation of string theory and its unification of both general relativity and quantum mechanics in ‘The Elegant Universe’ is so far some of the best writing on the subject I’ve been able to find. A short segment on the nature of physical laws caused me to break out Feynman’s ‘Six Not-So-Easy Pieces’ where he talks about the symmetry of physical laws. The nature of physical law is a fascinating thing to reflect on – especially the ontological status of said laws.

Torrance’s essay on Polanyi in ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge’ is a brilliant essay – his exposition of some fairly complex ideas is outstanding. The whole book is great, but the Polanyi essay is probably one of the stronger essays in the book.  Torrance’s concept of stratified levels of intelligibility in reality is definitely something I’ll be thinking further on.


T.F.Torrance, Michael Polanyi and Ultimate Beliefs

In his book ‘Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge’, T.F. Torrance devotes an essay to examining what he calls ‘ultimate beliefs’ and their effect on the natural sciences. Here’s a few relevant sections with some of my comments:

‘…the controlling statements with which we operate in science are both unfalsifiable and unverifiable. They are statements which express what we have called ultimate beliefs, beliefs without which there would be no science at all, beliefs which play a normative role in the gaining and developing of knowledge. Yet these ultimate beliefs are by their very nature irrefutable and unprovable. They are irrefutable and unprovable on two grounds: (1) because they have to be assumed in any attempt at rational proof or disproof; and (2) because they involve a relation of thought to being which cannot be put into logical or demonstrable form. Ultimate beliefs, then, are to be understood as expressing the fundamental commitment of the mind to reality, which rational knowledge presupposes and on which the reason relies in any authentic thrust towards truth.’ (p. 194) 

The fundamental commitment is important here – Torrance took from Polanyi the idea that trust, commitment and obligation are key aspects of our knowledge in the natural sciences, and I’ll come back to it here. The basic point to be taken here is that ultimate beliefs operate at a level which formal logic and proofs don’t apply because of their tacit nature. Continuing on:

‘Far from being irrational or non-rational, these beliefs have to do with the ontological reference of the reason to the nature and structure of things, which all explicit forms of reasoning are intended to serve, and without which they are blind and impotent. It is indeed not finally through formal reasoning that knowledge is advanced, but through the responsible commitment to reality in which are minds fall under the normative insights or ultimate beliefs which prompt and guide our inquiries, which enable us to interpret our experiences and observations, and which direct the reasoning operations of our inquiries to their true ends.’ (p. 194)

This goes back to the fundamental commitment – the commitment is essential for knowledge to be  and for reasoning itself to function. This commitment, where the mind falls under the ultimate beliefs, is what Polanyi called the ‘fiduciary framework’, which also includes a rational obligation for us to think in accordance with the revealed structures of reality – thinkng after the nature of things, to use Torrance’s maxim. This, for Torrance as well as the classical Christian tradition, is more or less the definition of faith. Continuing:

‘Since this is the case, it is irrational to contrast faith and reason, for faith is the very mode of rationality adopted by the reason in its fidelity to what it seeks to understand, and as such faith constitutes the most basic form of knowledge upon which all subsequent rational inquiry proceeds. There could be no rational inquiry, no reflective thought without prior, informal knowledge grounded in experience and formed through the adaption of our minds faithfully to the nature of things, in the course of which our basic beliefs arise.’ (194)

We could map out Torrance’s idea out roughly like this thus far:

Reality —–> experience of reality —–> ultimate beliefs

The act of fundamental commitment arises when our mind falls under the normative ultimate beliefs – there is an obligation to think after the nature of things which one has to personally commit to so as to not fall into irrationality:

‘The ultimate beliefs…are objectively grounded in, and ontologically derived from, the intelligibility of the real world so independent of our understanding that it reaches out in an objective depth far beyond what we can bring within the range of any masterful comprehending on our part. Beliefs of this kind, calling us to personal commitment, differ from the natural beliefs of David Hume, which he spoke of as causally induced determinations of the mind, and not as free acts resting on grounds or reason. According to Polanyi,’Every belief is both a free gift and a payment of a tribute exacted from us. It is held on the personal responsibility of the believer, yet in the clear assumption that he cannot do otherwise.’ In other words, belif is at once a free and obligatory act, an act which we cannot rationally resist: it is thrust upon us from the given.’ (p. 197)

Here our map can be extended:

Reality —–> experience of reality —–> ultimate beliefs —–> rational obligation —–> personal commitment 

What both Torrance and Polanyi both stress, as can be seen here, is the element of trust, commitment and obligation in the gaining of scientific knowledge. Ultimate beliefs forms the fiduciary framework within which we can commit to reality and so inquire more deeply into reality.


You Can Join Richard Dawkin’s Cult… If You’re Willing to Pay 500,000

Zwinglius Redivivus

And of course are deeply stupid.

… My man in the pub was at the very low end of what believers will do and pay for: the Richard Dawkins website offers followers the chance to join the ‘Reason Circle’, which, like Dante’s Hell, is arranged in concentric circles. For $85 a month, you get discounts on his merchandise, and the chance to meet ‘Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science personalities’. Obviously that’s not enough to meet the man himself. For that you pay $210 a month — or $5,000 a year — for the chance to attend an event where he will speak.

When you compare this to the going rate for other charismatic preachers, it does seem on the high side. The Pentecostal evangelist Morris Cerullo, for example, charges only $30 a month to become a member of ‘God’s Victorious Army’, which is bringing ‘healing and deliverance to…

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Musings on Cormac McCarthy

It should be no secret that McCarthy is one of my favorite authors – in my opinion, he ranks up there with the great writers of the last hundred years. He’s gained a lot of popularity in recent years because of No Country For Old Men and The Road – but I wouldn’t rate those as his best works by a long shot. But what exactly is it that is so powerful about his writing?

There’s a few things I typically identify: his writing style is pretty much one of a kind. It’s sparse – but it’s not minimalist. He says a lot – sometimes with five words, sometimes with paragraphs. His writing, especially in All the Pretty Horses, is simply quiet. It’s relaxed – it flows at the speed of life, not rushing to the next dialogue or action scene. The story just happens – there’s no stylization, nothing like that. It’s laid-back, relaxed and quiet – however, this doesn’t mean that the content is relaxed, quite the opposite. When reading his works (and I’m thinking here specifically of The Border Trilogy), I get a feeling of sublimity. The books read like how the landscapes they take place in feel – cold, sparse, brutal, but beautiful and even poetic.

The content of McCarthy’s writing, however, is what really impacts me the most. His novels deal with pure human depravity taken to its utmost extremes – for example, in Blood Meridian, Outer Dark and Child of God. There’s no flinching, no holding back – some of the characters and sequences in his earlier works are horrifying, savage and brutal. McCarthy, by using such stark violence, really deconstructs a lot of the mythology surrounding the American Wild West. Apart from the depraved themes often treated by McCarthy, there are some deep metaphysical ideas woven into his works – the nature of good and evil, God, love, war, ethics, anthropology, and a host of other subjects often crop up in his writing.  These themes appear in long dialogues or monologues that are reminiscent of Hemingway’s dialogues – short, sparse and to the point, with no extra fluff. In short, McCarthy’s writings sustain a level of moral and philosophical reflection that very few modern books are capable of sustaining.

I really couldn’t point to any one single thing that I think makes McCarthy’s works so powerful – it’s the interweaving of all these things, the violence, the philosophical ideas, the poetic prose, the dreamy narratives that make his writing so brilliant and unique.

Musings on Summoning

Summoning are in my top three or four favourite bands – for a few reasons.

First, their lyrics are pretty much all Tolkien-based, but not in the geeky way – their interpretation of Tolkien is pretty solid and avoids the geeky/fanboy feel that lots of metal bands have when their lyrics are based on Tolkien or fantasy in general.

Their sound, especially on Oath Bound (which I would consider to be their best album , and one of the best metal albums ever put out [if you can really call it metal, which is debatable]) is absolutely brilliant – their music perfectly captures the mood of Tolkien’s early works like The Silmarillion. The music has a truly sublime feeling – it has the same enormous, tragic feeling that is so characteristic of Tolkien’s writing. I would say epic, but epic is a word that’s really been used and abused a lot in recent years – but tracks like Beleriand really do, in my opinion, capture what it means to be epic.

If I had to describe the sound of Summoning, I’d say dreamy ambient with some black metal influences, mostly in the vocals – the use of slow drum patterns, slow guitar and heavy, slow synths really sets them apart in the metal world, and honestly, I wouldn’t call their more recent albums metal. Oath Bound in particular is more ambient than anything, in my opinion. It’s mood capturing music – and as I said above, it captures the bleak, tragic and cold world of the The Silmarillion brilliantly.

Thought Notes 8/11/2014: Hume, Science and Faith

I think that Hume’s problem of induction is one of the most fun and fruitful philosophical problems out there. Not because the immediate problem itself is especially edifying, but because sustained reflection and engagement with the problem will cause you to reflect on and engage with nearly every major issue in philosophy, spilling over into the sciences and even humanities. Whether or not it is an actual problem is a matter of some debate, but for the sake of argument and reflection it can be kind of assumed to be a genuine problem.

I don’t remember what brought the topic of ‘science and faith’ to my mind (a topic I honestly think is so worn out as to nearly be a dead horse) – maybe it was a random tweet or something like that. But I got to thinking about the nature of the ‘false choice’ between science and faith that many people seem to think is set before earnest young enquirers – naturally, when faced with such a choice, they opt for Science, leaving their faith behind as a distant memory of something they couldn’t ‘reconcile’ with what they took to be the modern scientific world.

A few thoughts (I sort of began thinking on this topic here): if science and faith are in conflict, and you opt for science over faith, it appears to me that what you didn’t have faith, but had a system of beliefs that was actually already quasi-‘scientific’ in nature, and not religious. Basically, it wasn’t faith you had, it was crappy science that was overruled by different science. Any given piece of empirical data doesn’t do anything to strengthen or weaken faith unless it’s already presupposed that the merit of that faith are based upon empirical evidence. Apparent ‘design’ in nature (to take one example) isn’t proof of anything – but given a prior commitment to God as a designer, it becomes something which doesn’t strengthen the actual belief but simply reinforces the underlying presuppositions. I was going to say that it confirms what you already knew, but that doesn’t work either – if you know something you don’t need it confirmed – you already know it. So it’s not even that the data confirms something to be true – it simply justifies you more in holding to the presuppositions you already hold to.

So, with that in mind: the ‘false choice’ of either science or faith becomes not a choice between science and religious belief but between science and quasi-science. If belief in God or the Resurrection or what have you can’t be reconciled with a ‘scientific worldview’ then the problem isn’t reconciling science and faith but reconciling science and quasi-science. Religious ideas have ceased to be religious and have become a quasi-scientific ideas, and since those ideas can’t (obviously) be reconciled with science, they are jettisoned.

Philosophy of Mine Notes

Reading philosophy of mind this last week it occurred to me that a lot of problems (not just in philosophy of mind, but in philosophy more generally) in the field occur because a single insight is taken for the whole truth of the matter, and solidifies into a position to be defended. Take, for instance, functionalism and behaviourism. Sound, if a bit obvious, insights: the mental play a functional, causal role and are manifested in behaviour. Yes, of course – but the problem is when that’s taken for the entire story.

Speaking of behaviourism, it didn’t occur to me until recently (yeah yeah, I’m late to this party, I know) that Wittgenstein anticipates, unconsciously it seems, behaviourism (I don’t think he ever called it that by name). Reading ‘Neuroscience and Philosophy’ by P.M.S. Hacker really drove this home, who argues that (a) what he calls the ‘mereological fallacy’, which is predicating things that are done by the whole person (thinking, perceiving) of the brain as if the brain does it on its own and (b) that things like qualia don’t exist, on the basis of (a). Hacker basically says: don’t exist, because if they existed, they would be an inner mental phenomena (which basically means brain phenomena), and since it’s incoherent to say that the brain experiences qualia, they don’t exist. John Searle notes that even if it’s correct to say that the brain doesn’t experience qualia, simply noting that the brain is where the biological processes of consciousness (which is pretty much qualia for Searle) doesn’t really give you grounds to say that it’s incoherent or doesn’t exist. In a nutshell, Hacker argues that qualia make no sense because (1) they are an essentially inner thing existing in the brain, and therefore aren’t manifested by behavior and (2) consciousness can’t exist in brains, because only whole persons are conscious, not merely brains.

Book Notes 8/10/2014

I received Roger Scruton’s ‘Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey’ the about a week ago, and it’s a great book so far. A bit dense and not really too interested in the ‘introduction’ aspect – he jumps into topics more or less assuming the reader has a decent knowledge of things like symbolic logic, which he whips out with no warning. But in terms of content, it’s great – he goes by topic (Perception, Epistemology, the Soul, Freedom, Causality, Naming and Necessity, Time, etc) with a masterful knowledge and handling of the primary sources and an overall very readable style. The ‘modern’ refers more to the period between Descartes and Wittgenstein (there are tangential discussions of more modern thinkers like Rorty, Sartre, as well as analytic philosophy), so don’t expect too much ‘cutting edge’ philosophy.

I also received ‘A Companion to the Philosophy of Mine’, which has been a fantastic guide to modern philosophy of mind. So far the standout articles have been on functionalism, subjectivism and intentionality, and I highly recommend it as a reference.

The last of the three books I ordered last week was Jaroslav Pelikan’s ‘Christianity and Classical Culture’, which is an examination of the meeting of Christian and Hellenistic cultures, specifically focusing on the Cappodicians and their use/reformulation of classical philosophical ideas in the articulation of a dogmatic as well as a natural theology. Very good, very dense, and very dry – but the discussions of apophatic theology alone is worth the money.

I also started reading Phillip Roth’s ‘Letting Go’. I hardly ever read fiction, and I can firmly say that this is the first American post-war novel I’ve started reading, and it’s pretty good so far.