Jaki on Science

‘It is a fundamental shortcoming of science that on its exact and formal level it gives the appearance of being severed from that reality which is a vast network of events standing in causal relation. Yet, while science may and should appear in that sense severed from reality, science becomes an illusion if that appearance is declared to be real.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God’, p. 275)

Note on Dumb Stuff

Neil deGrasse Tyson, otherwise known as Black Science Man, predictably says dumb stuff about philosophy. The confusions are so thick it’s actually painful. Go here: http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/neil-degrasse-tyson-and-the-value-of-philosophy/ (my hyperlinks aren’t working for some odd reason) to see what he says and a halfway decent response to his babbling. I say halfway because, as seems to be par for the course, the relation between science and metaphysics isn’t really recognized. Apparently, the only way people can conceive of philosophy is if its a kind of quasi-empirical science. That this is the kind of crap that’s being promoted, popularized and swallowed is mildly irritating.

For those interested, here’s a few assorted posts on the nature of the relationship between science and metaphysics:

https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/2014/03/30/science-metaphysics-and-language/

https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/2014/02/22/physics-metaphysics-physics/

https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/on-science/

https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/2014/04/08/conceptual-confusions-and-philosophy-of-mind/

Here’s general philosophy of science (the posts linked above are in this category as well): https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/category/philosophy-of-science-2/

Note on Mind

William Hasker makes a good case for emergent dualism, against Cartesian and Thomistic dualism (hylomorphic dualism). The very basic idea is that the mind and consciousness are generated by the activity of the brain. Such a theory avoids dualisms, which I like (though Thomism isn’t as crude of a dualism as a lot of other kinds) and it seems to make sense of the biological/physiological data. It’s a theory I’m so far sympathetic with, but not entirely convinced by.

Reading Notes 4/12/14

I’m almost done with Polyani’s ‘Personal Knowledge’, which has been a very interesting book. His discussions of the personal nature of logical propositions is probably the best part of the book – I can’t really recommend this volume enough for those interested in science, philosophy, philosophy of science, etc.

I’m making my way through ‘Foundation and Empire’, which hasn’t been quite as good as ‘Foundation’ so far – it’s been just a little bit slower in getting started. It’s good, obviously, but seems almost awkward in some places. Still a great book, though. I have ‘I, Robot’, somewhere, and would like to re-read that one as well. The film with Will Smith was good, but shared almost nothing but the name in common with the book.

There was an interesting section in ‘Mapping the Mind’ about the unity and disunity of the conscious experience in relation to depression and emotion – Rita Carter argues that meaning is bound up with emotion, and shows that the area called the ventromedial cortex is the brain’s emotional ‘control center’, and is the most important organ in the brain for tying all our conscious experiences and perceptions into one, meaningful unified experience. Fascinating stuff.

I skimmed through Torrance’s ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, specifically, the chapter entitled ‘The Social Coefficient of Knowledge’. He expounds Polyani’s ideas of ‘pre’ knowledge – arguing that it’s this social coefficient and inter-personal existence that allows us to have ‘proleptic’ glimpses of the inherent patterns and rational order/structure of the universe, which is what allows us to inquire into reality in a meaningful way. A good quote:

‘It is worth repeating at this point that the social coefficient of our knowledge, or the cognitional structure of our social consciousness, does not generate in us concepts of reality, nor does it provide our knowledge with informational content, but it does predispose us toward explicit apprehension of the rational order intrinsic to the nature of things through the informal, inarticulate way in which it reflects it.’ (p. 114)

Conceptual Confusions and Philosophy of Mind

Of all the conceptually confused areas in philosophy, philosophy of mind is probably the most confused. Think of, for example, mental causation, or the debates on the relation of brain states to mental states, or the causal relation of neurons to thoughts, things along those lines. The confusion, like all conceptual confusions, is a simple one.

Suppose one performs a scan of a brain and observes the patterns of neurons when a certain cognitive action, like thinking of a certain thing, happens – or observe certain areas of the brain lighting up when a certain cognitive action is undertaken. In short, the physiological processes that, more or less, make thought happen. This is a normal observation made every day in laboratories across the globe – the confusion arises when it is assumed that what is observed is mental causation (brain states cause mental states, or something of the sort).

Empirically, what is observed is not mental causation but mental correlation – as I’ve pointed out before, causality is a metaphysical, and not an empirical, category. Any notion of causation takes one, implicitly if not explicitly, into the realm of philosophy. If one supposes that all that is observed is all that there is, one has crossed from science into philosophy – whether or not it is done well is another story entirely.

(As a late edit, I’ll add that mental causation is more varied than what I listed here – for example, epiphenomenalism, which denies the mental any causal power – mental states are caused by brain states, but brain states are not causally influenced by mental states – is a big part of the philosophy of mind debates)

This shows, again, how intimate the connection between science and metaphysics is. Think of an intricate braid made of two different strands of rope. While they are two distinct things, when they are intertwined correctly, they form a strong, intimate bond, as opposed to being tangled together in a lump, which serves only to prevent it from being used properly.

While of a slightly different nature than the causal confusion above, it’s easy to see how other confusions arise – for example, that neuroscience has shown that free will is an illusion. This again is simply a muddle of confused thinking – certainly brain science has a lot to tell us about the mechanical/physiological aspect of human volition (it has, and will continue to, inform us more and more of the mechanical, but not mechanistic, workings of the brain), but it has very little, if anything, to say about human freedom seen as a whole, and not merely seen as volition (which has very little part to play in a full account of freedom).

Such are the perils of conceptual confusions.

Science, Metaphysics and Language

The extent to which science and metaphysics are intertwined (one could almost say bound up) with each other is, at times, astounding – and I think this intertwine-ness comes from language. The conceptual grammar which makes science possibly comes almost entirely from metaphysics – cause, purpose, etc – but are often confused with the science itself. Causality is an example of this – causality is a metaphysical category, yet it’s nearly impossible to say anything having to do with science without using some kind of causal-language. The conceptual grammar becomes inextricably part of the actual science.

Consider a similar, but negative, situation: the elimination of formal/final causes in modern science (initiated, by, say the early moderns). This shows, to me, a remarkable conceptual confusion by eliminating metaphysical categories from empirical study. Formal and final causality, being metaphysical categories, cannot be studied under a microscope – (though biology will often use the language of purpose and form, it’s a decidedly different kind of thing than formal and final causality).

I say all this not to offer a solution to this problem but to simply note the striking manner in which science and metaphysics are conceptually confused – though a solution, to paraphrase L.W., may involve the release of the fly from the fly-bottle. Matters of method (say, the elimination of formal/final causality) are fine kept strictly as a matter of method – to confuse a matter of method with reality, though, is nothing but a conceptual confusion.

Reading Notes 3/18/14

I recently purchased ‘Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms’, which is a history of the evolution of, obviously enough, horseshoe crabs and velvet worms. Horseshoe crabs are one of my favourite animals, and learning about their biological history (and about evolutionary biology in general) is fascinating. Fun fact: the crabs can’t bleed to death, and the quality which makes this so is sought after by some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world and is used in a variety of medical treatments.

E.P. Sanders ‘Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People’ has been getting a good amount of attention from me lately. It’s a great book for anyone interested in a sustained study of one of the central tenets of the (not so) New Perspective on Paul: that the keeping of Torah was not an entrance requirement to the people of God. While somewhat dated, it’s still a classic study well worth reading.

I’ve also been reading Wright’s ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, which I finally bought for myself – the series has been reprinted with a great new cover artpiece, but still the same sucky Fortress press quality material – FP books always (in my experience) suffer from cheap construction, i.e. splitting covers, poor paper quality, poor binding, etc. But that aside, the book is obviously great – it’s good to be able to slowly go through it. I skipped a bit ahead to the part about the cross and the actual victory of God – good, good stuff. I love Wright’s take on Jesus’ vocation/calling. Wright’s mastery over the second-temple period and sources is pretty much without peer, especially when it comes to themes like exile, restoration, the covenant people, etc.

I haven’t been reading too much fiction lately, aside from very, very slowly reading Asimov’s Foundation series (like, 2-3 pages per night kind of slowly). What fantastic books – beat out Tolkien for a Hugo! Speaking of, Tolkien’s got a translation of Beowulf coming out, which has me excited. I haven’t read his translation/take on the Arthur legend, but I’d like to. I read his books to the point where they were falling apart (I had to duct tape some of them back together) some time ago, and haven’t read them seriously in some time, but every time I go back and skim through, I remember why he’s the greatest writer of all time. My personal favourite works are his ‘Book of Lost Tales’, both 1 and 2.

On a sad note, I lost my Nook ereader on my camping trip – but it gives me an excuse to save up for a bit and buy one of the new light-up ones.

Stanley Jaki on Hume

‘Starting with a dark mystery, Hume went on stumbling from mystery to mystery, because he had radically separated at the very outset sense from mind and mind from sense. The rise of sensory impressions become one unfathomable mystery, the assocation of impressions another. By ascribing it to some “gentle force” to an instinctive inclination, Hume only made the mystery more mysterious. More mystery arose when Hume tried to reduce that instinct to the “original qualities” of mind. The mystery was now so dense that Hume did not even pretend to “explain that origin”. But Hume could have even that thick mystery only at the price of evoking a vision of mind as a substance capable of having qualities. A little honest reflection on Hume’s part might have shown him that man’s experience of having a mind consists precisely in experiencing a peculiar unity which gives them intelligibility and order. Instead, Hume ended up advocating a notion of mind which in his description could easily evoke the image of a heap of bricks. To assume that the heap formed through some all-pervading mortar a genuine unity was an illusion: “What we call a mind, is nothing byt a heap of collection of different perceptions, united together by certain relations and supposed, though falsely, to be endowed with a perfect simplicity and identity.” (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God’, p. 104)

Physics, Metaphysics, Physics

I’ll be the first to say that a lot of physics and a lot of metaphysics goes right over my head. Whoosh. Modern analytic philosophy, which is what most folks mean when they say metaphysics, is about as comprehensible to me as advanced mathematics (I’m terrible at math). A lot of modern physics, at least the mathematical parts (which is a lot) is the same – whoosh.

However, I do try and keep up at least somewhat with the latest developments of the broader ideas and underpinnings of metaphysics and physics – especially physics, which is way more metaphysical than a lot of folks think it is. Philosophy of physics and the broad metaphysical ideas behind and under modern cosmology are just as important, and in my mind way more interesting, anyway.

I say all this to pick a fight with something Tim Maudlin says in his great book, ‘The Metaphysics within Physics,’ :

‘Metaphysics is ontology. Ontology is the most generic study of what exists. Evidence for what exists, at least in the physical world, is provided by empirical research. Hence the proper object of most metaphysics is the careful analysis of our best scientific theories (and especially of fundamental physical theories) with the goal of determining what they imply about the constitution of the physical world.’ (p. 104)

Now, it should be fairly obvious the issues here: the definition of ontology. Ontology is not the study of what exists, ontology is the study of being, or existence (you can be real anal and dispute whether or not those two words mean the same thing. I’m not going to). Being as such, not this or that particular thing that has being – or existence as such, not this or that thing that happens to exist. Being qua being. This is a pretty significant thing to get wrong.

A more concrete example: metaphysics studies how it is that change is possible (Parmenides, Heraclitus, Aristotle) and not this or that example of change (a chemical reaction, for example). What Maudlin does is to shift metaphysics from being the study of the absolute fundamentals of reality to a slightly more abstract form of empirical science, which analyzes various empirical theories. That isn’t metaphysics, that is just normal thinking.

In a nutshell, Maudlin’s scheme is that we derive metaphysics from physics, and further, ontology from physics. Our notions of existence comes from physics. Earlier in the same volume:

‘First: metaphysics, i.e. ontology, is the most generic account of what exists, and since our knowledge of what exists in the physical world rests on empirical evidence, metaphysics must be informed by empirical science.’ (p. 78)

I’m tempted to say that simply knowing what exists gives us no knowledge past bare sensory knowledge of particulars, which doesn’t really lead to knowledge of any kind, which is what Maudlin is setting out to do by analyzing various theories. But why restrict our knowledge of what exists to the physical, as Maudlin implicitly does? Twice above he says that whatever exists in the physical world is supported by empirical, or physical evidence. But that’s only trivially true – obviously, if something exists in the physical world, it will have physical evidence. But it doesn’t follow from that that the only notions of existence, or what exists comes from the physical world.

This seems to be a tangled way of thinking, which has its origin in Maudlin’s confusion of what metaphysics is. Now, as I said above, this isn’t my game. Analytic philosophy ain’t my thing, so it’s possible I’m quite wrong in my analysis. But what I see, in another nuthsell, is (a) a confusion of terms (ontology as the study of what exists), which leads to (b) the idea that our only knowledge of what exists is physical. To make ontology the study of what exists is to make metaphysics and ontology, as stated above, a slightly more abstract brand of empirical science.

Note on Strengthening Faith

When someone says something in regards to, say, a fact of science, that ‘it strengthened their faith’, what exactly does that mean? That acquiring this particular piece of empirical knowledge somehow increased either the quality or quantity of their faith? How would this work? I see statements like that often, but I’m not sure what is really meant by them. One believes in God – does learning X mean that now they really believe in God? Or that if there was any doubt, now there isn’t? But suppose X hadn’t been found out. Would said faith be weaker than if X had? I doubt that very much – I have a hard time imagining a devout Christian would have their faith shaken by not coming across a certain fact – if they did, then that would serve simply to show the folly of basing one’s faith in God upon a particular empirical fact.

Or suppose that the opposite of X, Y, had been found out. Would that have weakened said faith? I doubt that, because I don’t think what is meant by ‘strengthening faith’ is that X actually increases the quality of one’s spiritual confidence in God, or corrects a deficiency or weakness in said faith, but rather that X simply affirms what is already believed. I know my wife is a lovely person, but when she makes a nice dinner or cleans up the kitchen, I don’t say, ‘wow, that really strengthened my belief that she’s a nice person.’ I already know she’s a nice person – dinner simply serves to confirm what I already know. A poor analogy that’s best not pressed too far, but it serves the point.

Anyway, my point is that I don’t think most folks who say that X strengthens their faith actually mean that. From a theological perspective, God strengthens my faith – not any particular empirical or metaphysical fact. I think it was Newman who said, ‘I believe in design because I believe in God, not in God because I believe in design.