Friday, February 24, 2012

Pissing in the Stream of Progress

Continuing with yesterday's post, we are a firm believer in evolution. What we do not understand -- in principle, mind you -- is how a believer in natural selection can simultaneously maintain a belief in evolution, since the one precludes the other.

Let's define our terms. In order to avoid a common misconception, I should point out that when I say evolution, I do not mean evolutionism, which is another species entirely.

The latter is the metaphysical doctrine that says that ultimate reality involves a kind of unfolding from primordial substance. It reduces to pantheism -- or elevates matter to God -- as everything is seen as an explication of what lies hidden in potential in mere matter. It violates reason and common sense, as it not only tries to derive the higher from the lower, but ultimately, if pressed to its conclusion, everything from nothing. Life must reduce to death, mind to matter, truth to falsehood, and your little theory of evolutionism to a sacred cow pie. And you just stepped in it.

As mentioned in previous posts, the idea of evolution had literally been around for thousands of years (two thousand, anyway) prior to Darwin. Maritain points out that a number of the pre-Socratics hit upon the notion, which is not surprising, since it is one of the possibilities presented to us as we first attempt to see beneath phenomena to the Real.

If we think of these men as analogous to children (by which I do not mean to insult them; rather, that, philosophically speaking, man was in the position of a child, starting with nothing), then we can understand how one might arrive at the notion that all is change, or being, or one. In other words, they are searching for the ultimate abstraction, or principle, which can account for each and every particular instance (which is indeed the purpose of metaphysics).

So Maritain reminds us that various forms of evolutionism were taught by Greek thinkers of the fifth and sixth centuries BC, such as Anaximander, Empedocles, and Heraclitus, the latter of whom is famous for teaching that "all is change," and that one cannot step into the same stream twice.

But again, if this is true, then it must also apply to Heraclitus' doctrine, so that if he is right, he is wrong. The same applies, of course, to modern Darwinists, to the extent that they elevate the science to a metaphysic.

Maritian traces the evolution of philosophy -- which is to say, the increased proximity to wisdom -- from these early thinkers, through Plato and Aristotle and on to St. Thomas. And when I say evolution, I mean evolution. I do not mean random change, as if there is no essential difference between Heraclitus, Aristotle, and Thomas, and that one might as well flip a coin to determine which of them was closer to truth.

No, when I say that philosophy -- and science, for that matter -- has evolved, this is what I mean: that it betrays a clear and recognizable direction that only the fool or tenured could deny.

Not to speak ill of the dead, but this denial is precisely what my late uncle-through-marriage -- the esteemed University of Chicago historian -- maintained. It so happens that he was friendly with Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the celebrated Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In one of those rare occasions that I was completely wrong, I argued that Kuhn was not implying that there was no such thing as objective scientific progress. Admittedly, I didn't actually know this. Rather, I just assumed that no one could be that stupid. I was a little naive back then.

So, when we talk about philosophic or scientific progress, what are we really talking about? In other words, what is the measure of progress, besides getting a lot of free stuff from the government on somebody else's dime? So far Maritain hasn't come right out and said it, but perhaps the most noticeable change we see between, say, the pre-Socratics through Aquinas, involves the power of abstraction.

In fact, we can trace this path all the back to animals, who have no powers of abstraction. In many ways man is defined by this power, which is largely rooted in language, and prior to that, in my opinion, the hand. Yes, the hand, because it is nature's first all-purpose tool. Because the hand can do this and the hand can do that, we grasp the underlying principle of grasping.

Remember a couple of posts ago, our discussion of how applied cynicism is the cure for a corrosive cynicism gone wild? Wouldn't you know it, the very next day Maritain made exactly the same point vis-a-vis the Socratic method, and here I was thinking I was being original again.

Note that both the cause and effect of cynicism is the absence of truth. I suppose postmodernists must pride themselves on being the first humans to be courageous enough to embrace the truth that there is no truth, but that is an ahistorical fiction.

Rather, this kind of relativism had already taken philosophy to a dead end by the time Socrates arrived on the scene.

I'm starting to run out of time, so I'll just let Maritain take over the cosmic bus from here. Bear in mind that he's talking about conditions 2400 years ago, not today:

"[T]heir concepts were embroiled in confused strife, an interminable battle of opposing probabilities. The immediate and obvious result of these attempts at philosophizing seemed the bankruptcy of speculative thought."

"It is not, therefore, surprising that this period of elaboration produced a crisis in the history of thought, at which an intellectual disease imperiled the very existence of philosophic speculation. This intellectual disease was sophistry, that is to say, the corruption of philosophy.

"Sophistry is not a system of ideas, but a vicious attitude of the mind.... For the aim and rule of their knowledge was no longer that which is, that is to say, the object of knowledge, but the interest of the knowing subject....

"[T]he most characteristic feature of all alike was that they sought the advantages conferred by knowledge without seeking truth.

"They sought the advantages conferred by knowledge so far as knowledge brings its possessor power, pre-eminence, or intellectual pleasure. With this in view, they put themselves forward as rationalists and walking encyclopedias; to every question they had an answer, deceptively convincing....

"They did not seek truth.... For with men and children alike destruction is the easiest method of displaying their strength.... Every law imposed upon man they declared to be an arbitrary convention...."

Well, that's the history. It reappeared in the 1960s, this time as farce. Time will tell if we ever reenter the stream of progress.

17 Comments:

Blogger mushroom said...

Yes, the hand, because it is nature's first all-purpose tool.

The Swiss Army Knife of appendages, not to mention metaphors.

2/24/2012 08:24:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

In reading the description of Sophists, I am unsure whether to laugh or cry. In any case, alternating current can be illuminating.

A couple of days ago I read part of a piece by some physicist who does not like the multiverse and string theory approach. His very sensible argument was that just because you can get the mathematics to work out does not mean the equations represent reality. I think he used the phrase that it was more about excuses than explanations.

We have exactly that "walking encyclopedia" thing going in so many fields, from cosmology to climate science. Economists and politicians are really good at coming up with excuses and assigning blame after the fact. They are not so good at predicting the often dire consequences beforehand.

2/24/2012 08:45:00 AM  
Blogger Verdiales said...

"Academia is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it."

That's the philosophy of the tenured Left in a nutshell. They all envy Michel Foucault and Edward Said, who threw bricks at things.

2/24/2012 08:59:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

I'm reminded of a post Vanderleun had up a couple weeks ago about algae blooms. Also of something glimpsed more recently about the big bang. Apparently, some scientists believe they're on the verge of explaining how something came from almost nothing. If they manage it, they seem to think they will have explained why it all happened, though of course they will have done nothing of the sort.

2/24/2012 09:18:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

(nothing to see here, just checking the box...)

2/24/2012 09:20:00 AM  
Blogger Verdiales said...

Planck epoch:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_epoch

Right, so, whence the Planck epoch?

Science can't measure the Planck epoch, much less what/where it came from. But one thing is certain: whatever the Planck epoch was like, it must have had a cause sufficient to produce it.

The materialist answers, so what. You can't study something you can't study, so why bother? The answer is that a reasonable person can't be satisfied by that answer because it is perfectly logical.

There is no getting around the absurdity of asserting that existence came out of nonexistence. There must be pure existence, which is not itself finite, and which is itself sufficient to cause (by symmetry disturbance or whatever) everything subsequent.

This is anterior to any ground state, vacuum energy, etc.

2/24/2012 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger Verdiales said...

Er, a reasonable person can't be satisfied by that answer because the *question* is perfectly logical.

2/24/2012 11:45:00 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

Verdiales said...

"There is no getting around the absurdity of asserting that existence came out of nonexistence. There must be pure existence, which is not itself finite, and which is itself sufficient to cause (by symmetry disturbance or whatever) everything subsequent."

That's it, right there.

[If that statement was a rare animal and I was hiking in a jungle with a photographer, I would freeze in my tracks, nod slightly, and not even breathe... especially up to the part that crescendos at "pure existence". For proof of God, to me, that would be the QED.]

2/24/2012 08:52:00 PM  
Blogger JP said...

"Science can't measure the Planck epoch, much less what/where it came from. But one thing is certain: whatever the Planck epoch was like, it must have had a cause sufficient to produce it."

Stephen Hawking goes with "negative time", I think.

So one way to get around it is to use negative numbers.

Although at this point, cosmology is trying to lock down the dark matter and dark energy problem.

So, the entire model could get thrown out in the future.

Although, I've noticed that everything happens Now anyway.

2/25/2012 07:41:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

"[T]he most characteristic feature of all alike was that they sought the advantages conferred by knowledge without seeking truth.”

The scaffolding of Hell.

2/25/2012 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

OT...
Bob,
Have you read, "The Science of the Greater Jihad: Essays in Principial Psychology" by Charles Upton?

2/25/2012 11:43:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

No, I don't really care for him. Or, I like half of what he says, but the other half I don't like at all.

2/25/2012 12:26:00 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

You mean the book by his better-half.

2/25/2012 12:40:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Although, I've noticed that everything happens Now anyway.

Reminds me of that old saying that time is God's way of keeping everything from happening all at once.

2/25/2012 09:07:00 PM  
Blogger ge said...

Everything happens [in razor-thin pure vertical] Now anyway... Now only...Now always
+
What is, IS
+
ONLY being

"cheerful news was sadly rare"

2/26/2012 06:33:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

"Remember a couple of posts ago, our discussion of how applied cynicism is the cure for a corrosive cynicism gone wild?"

It's the difference between Questioning and Doubting.

"Note that both the cause and effect of cynicism is the absence of truth..."

It's not just the absense of Truth, it's the absense of it even being sought, or rather its absense is what is being sought. The person who uses Doubt as their method, the Sophist, the Cynic, is not seeking to disentangle or to discover, but to unravel and disintegrate, the entire purpose of their method is the pursuit of nothingness... everything is approached with the sense of "Nuh-uh... that isn't really so, that isn't really there, look, I'll disintegrate it with my Doubt - you see? Not real."

Socrates on the other hand wasn't interested in unravelling, but disentangling, revealing and integrating, and that is what comes to us as the Socratic Method, questioning in order to discover and understand - seeking to create knowledge of what is true.

The Sophistic Cynic seeks only to dissolve and dispense with - nominally he seeks to show what is False, but fundamentally he seeks to destroy and to make nothing of what was.

""[T]he most characteristic feature of all alike was that they sought the advantages conferred by knowledge without seeking truth.”

And as always, when Truth is not the object, Power is, power to control, power to rend, and ultimately, though they always seem a bit surprised, power to destroy themselves and all they built - the power luster is self destructive to the core, because at the core that is what they seek - de-struction.

It is the scaffolding with which Hell is 'constructed', the power to build nihil.

2/26/2012 09:42:00 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

Van,

Post bonus guest post. Thank you.

Interesting also would be a diagnosis of those who accept "special revelation" but are cynical toward "general revelation" in one way or another. How do they get that way? I know people who sort of wallow in general revelation never wanting to put a name to anything and not accepting the nature of the Word as given. But then there are people who accept the given Word, but do all kind of maneuvers toward general revelation, being cynical toward that.

2/26/2012 10:41:00 AM  

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