Friday, February 03, 2017

In God We Trust Science (and vice versa)

Last night the idea popped into my head that we really know nothing. Indeed, this is the stance we must adopt if it is the case that all scientific knowledge is by definition incomplete and on the way to something else.

Nevertheless, "it remains a timeless temptation to claim that the unknown has been reduced to nothing, or at least almost to nothing." But logic dictates that "the magnitude of the unknown is, well... unknown!" (Verschueren).

So, when my mind taunted me with the idea that we know nothing, it's just a way of taking seriously the notion that we have no idea how much we don't know compared to what little we do.

I remember in grad school, I had a particularly brilliant professor who would weave these spellbinding lectures off the top of his head, as if he were in a trance and just channeling truth from some other dimension. During one, I remember him coming to a temporary stop, wistfully shaking his head from side to side, and saying, "but we know so little..."

What? This guy seemed to know everything! And now he's telling me he knows so little? What does that make me? It made me feel as if I would never know even a little, let alone a lot, to say nothing of everything. Which was my secret goal.

But as we've discussed before, there seems to be a geometrical reason for why the more we learn, the less we know. If the totality of what we know is represented by a kind of circular spotlight, then the more it illuminates, the larger the circumference. Obviously you can't increase the area inside the circle without expanding the circumference in kind. Thus, knowledge only deepens the Mystery, unless you are completely devoid of irony.

For example, the discovery of the genome is an impressive feat of knowledge. But it only increases the mystery of how such infinitely complex information could arise from non-information. If DNA were simple, then maybe it wouldn't be such a leap from inanimate to animate.

Which is why one needs to begin with metaphysical assumptions that render the transition from non-information to information conceivable, and certainly not impossible. This is very different from "intelligent design," which is an ad hoc theory to fill in the gaps between randomness and order -- in which God intervenes directly to transform the former into the latter.

But in our metaphysic, existence is intelligence as such. God doesn't need to intervene directly, because his creation is a priori suffused with the divine intelligence. Without it there is neither intelligence nor the intelligibility implicit in every existent thing.

Indeed, in this metaphysic, to exist is to be intelligible to intelligence. "Unintelligible existence" is a non sequitur. Everything that exists has an essence (or form) that makes it what it is, and therefore knowable. "True" and "exist" are synonymous terms.

"Without a Creator God, scientists would lose their reason for trusting their own scientific reasoning. The mere fact that reason exists -- including its order, its contents, its principles, its rules, and its power -- calls for an explanation" (ibid.).

These are not self-explanatory, but are rooted in a higher and deeper principle. Thus, "leaving God out of the cosmos would reduce reason to a mere neural experience that leaves us only with the sensation of reason," not the real thing.

There are many ironies in Christianity, but this is one of the most consequential: that the possession of reason makes us so darn godlike, while at the same time guaranteeing the impossibility of becoming gods. The same phenomenon exalts our greatness and seals our littleness.

Any "thing" -- i.e., existent -- abides in the space between two intelligences, God's and ours. Thus, as Josef Pieper puts it, there is a "double concept of the 'truth of things.' The first denotes the creative fashioning of things by God; the second their intrinsic knowability for the human mind."

The irony is that the very same principle that renders things knowable by man is precisely that which renders them unknowable by man. In other words, we can know anything that exists; but we can never completely know so much as a grain of sand. There is a horizon of mystery in all knowledge, from the simplest to most complete. That latter is reserved for God.

But in any event, don't be an idiot. "Do not think that it is possible to do both, to argue away the idea that things have been creatively thought by God and then go on to understand how things can be known by the human mind!" (ibid.).

For if there is no God, there is no truth at all, and no reason whatsoever to trust the mental agitations of a randomly evolved primate. If natural selection is a sufficient explanation, then our knowledge -- like everything else -- will continue to change, but one thing it will never be is true.

If knowledge isn't the effect of truth, then we are reduced to opinions. And if that is the case then the left has it right: weaponized opinion is all, and may the more powerful and violent lie win -- as in Berkeley the other night, and most "elite" universities every day.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Pretending to Know what Can't be Known and Unknowing what Can

Another promising book that didn't quite pan out is Aquinas and Modern Science: A New Synthesis of Faith and Reason. Nothing in it is coonologically incorrect. I fully agree with the author that Thomas's philosophy is as able today to reconcile the worlds of science and religion as 700 years ago. But I guess there wasn't much in it we haven't discussed before.

Aquinas "wrestled with how Christian religion would be affected by the most advanced science of his day," which is something we like to do around here. He was especially critical of the "double truth" promulgated by Islamic philosophers, "that a notion could be true in theology or religion" and simultaneously "false in philosophy or science." No, that is a non-starter. Truth is One because the One is Truth. Absent the One there is no truth at all.

We mean this quite literally. This little talk by Fr. Robert Barron reminds us of what is at stake. In discussing the devil (starting at 3:48), he spells out the etymological roots of the word, which connotes casting apart and scattering.

Conversely, God is the principle of ingathering, of synthesis, of unity. Now, synthesis recurs on every level of reality; to even posit a "cosmos" is to affirm an implicit synthesis of the totality of reality. Truth is always a unity, but its possibility is rooted in the prior oneness of God.

Science studies existence -- i.e., things that exist -- whereas metaphysics is concerned with the being of which existence is but a property. For this reason, "there is no science without metascience."

That is, "the sciences cannot be studied by the sciences themselves," any more than the eye can see itself or the hand grasp itself. Naive scientists can pretend to avoid metaphysics, but only on (implicitly) metaphysical grounds. For similar reasons it is impossible for human beings to avoid religion. An overtly religious person is simply honest about his religious assumptions.

Most of this is just plain logical. I think I've mentioned in the past that one of the things that prompted me to abandon liberalism was that I kept discovering truths that contradicted liberalism. Of note, this had nothing whatsoever to do with embracing conservatism, which I would have still rejected a priori. It was something of a shock to discover that certain truths arrived at in a completely dispassionate and disinterested way were entirely unwelcome on the left, to put it mildly.

To cite one glaring example, an intellectually honest pro-abortion person would have to concede that the Constitution in no way enshrines the right to a dead baby. The fact that this "right" is rooted in an invincible lie is quite revealing. (Earlier in that talk, Barron reminds us that Satan is the father -- or source -- of lies, and a murderer from the beginning.)

A similar example of ironyclad logic is that "those who defend scientism" are "unaware of the fact that scientism itself... is a nonscientific claim." No one can prove scientism via the scientific method. To think otherwise is absurd. Why can't we all agree on this?


Perhaps. But I don't want to sound crazy just yet. Nevertheless, there must be something -- some principle -- that prevents human beings from all being on the same page with regard to certain undeniable truths. If we can't agree on first principles, then there is little else with which we will agree. What is so frustrating is that these principles can be known. We don't have to guess or speculate or bullshit about them.

Here is an Undeniable Truth with which only a tenured ignoramus or ideological knave can disagree: "Scientism [or naturalism, or positivism, or utilitarianism, et al] poses a claim that can only be made from outside the scientific realm, thus grossly overstepping the boundaries of science." It is self-refuting, because "if it is true, it becomes false. It steps outside science to claim that there is nothing outside science."

This is the sort of logical idiocy I've been teaching my son to be able to sniff out. If some relativist or deconstructionist tries to tell him there's no such thing as truth, he knows how to respond. And he will accept no evasions or equivocations. The conversation will proceed no further until the deconstructionist answers the question: is that true?

So many arguments could be settled -- or at least stopped in their tracks -- by two words: Prove. It.

In fact, Thomas Sowell says you can pretty much put the left out of business with three questions (jump ahead to 3:45): compared to what, at what cost, and what hard evidence do you have? As he points out earlier in the clip, there are no "solutions," only more or less costly tradeoffs.

Did you hear a single liberal spell out what we were giving up in order to get Obamacare? Or what we were trading for the trillion dollar stimulus? Or what we were going to get -- good and hard -- in exchange for pulling our troops out of Iraq?

And just as there are no cost-free solutions, there are no... how to put it... no scientific theories that don't exclude infinite dimensions of reality. The word "infinite" is used advisedly, because the infinite is everything we don't know, and what we do know is always a fraction what we don't. And God is everything we don't know -- in the apophatic sense.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

When God Knocks You Over

I need to clear the desk of books that don't merit a whole post or series of posts, but nevertheless might contain some nuggets of joy. Books without merit are consigned to the closet, while the essential ones are in smallish bookcase to my right. Other books are categorized by subject in the much more expansive surrounding shelves.

These deskborne books occupy an ambiguous limboland. Usually they were disappointing in some way, beginning with this one on Aesthetics, by the Catholic theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand. Like any Raccoon, he

understood the centrality of beauty not merely to art but to philosophy, theology, and ethics. In his ambitious and comprehensive Aesthetics, Hildebrand rehabilitates the concept of beauty as an objective rather and purely subjective phenomenon. His systematic account renews the Classical and Christian vision of beauty as a reliable mode of perception that leads humanity toward the true, the good, and ultimately the divine. There is no more important issue in our culture -- sacred or secular -- than the restoration of beauty.

Agreed. Well, maybe not quite. I would say there is no more important issue in our culture than the restoration of truth. But where truth is like the foundation or axis, beauty is more like the ambiance or aroma. Its absence is suffocating, or dry and desiccating. It can chap your soul real bad.

Where truth speaks more directly to the mind, beauty.... whispers or something to the soul. In any event, you really don't want to have one without the other, nor obviously is there any clash between them. They are two sides of the same summit named God.

The author has one Big Idea, namely, that beauty, like truth, is objective. I've always suspected this, even when I was ten years old. For example, I knew the Beatles were objectively superior to most of their competitors.

How can this be? This is not the sort of assertion that is susceptible to objective proof. Nevertheless, it is objectively the case. In the words of the Aphorist: The relativity of taste is an excuse adopted by ages that have bad taste. So, Madonna is indeed as good as Beethoven, if only you have sufficiently bad taste.

It reminds me of what Stanley Jaki said about words. From a distance words have sharp outlines, like clouds in the sky. But approach the cloud and its boundaries become blurry and eventually nonexistent. Inside the cloud you can't see the boundaries at all.

Many of our fundamental concepts are like this: beauty, time, virtue, origins, etc. Indeed, we know that matter itself, which seems so solid, dissolves into vibrating waves of nonlocal energy. So, everything is a little blurry if you look too close.

Because of its objective value, you might say the genuine work of art judges us rather than vice versa. If a university department stops teaching Shakespeare on the basis of "diversity," who is being judged -- condemned, even -- Shakespeare or his tenured despisers?

Back to the distinction between truth and beauty. Where truth elicits a dispassionate consent, beauty is more direct and unmediated. One of my favorite aphorisms is that A work of art has, properly speaking, not meaning but power. You might say its power comes first, the meaning(s) second; conversely, with truth the meaning comes first, the power second. Think of the problems that occur when truth is conflated with power.

That is the way of the left, as is the insistence that art begin with a predigested and superimposed meaning. So much modern art has no power, nor can you know what it means unless the artist tells you what sort of idiotic idea he is trying to convey. But genuine art not only speaks for itself, but says things completely independent of the artist's intentions.

In short, in our postmodern aesthetic hell, beauty is deemed "a social fiction or political strategy with no objective connection to nature or reality."

Interestingly, while most people probably convert to Christianity for emotional or social reasons, a relative minority for intellectual and apologetic ones, in Hildebrand's case it was for aesthetic reasons, including the radiant beauty of the saints:

"It was the metaphysical beauty of Christian holiness and of the God-man of Christianity that caught and fired Hildebrand's religious imagination." Recall what was said above about power: Hildebrand was knocked over by the beauty before assimilating its truth. Or, one could say the experience of being knocked down made him want to explore what or Who did the knocking.

Now, if this beauty is objective, it means that people who fail to register it "also fail to experience what is really there." Just as the untutored mind will be foreclosed from various dimensions and modes of truth, so too will the vulgar soul be exiled from objective dimensions of beauty. This beauty registers on the soul no less than light does on the retina. This means we must render ourselves adequate to the task; again, failure to experience the power is a judgment on us.

Note that light and sound waves have a "carrying capacity" that far exceeds the naked physical phenomena. In other words, one of the most striking aspects of our cosmos -- perhaps the most striking one -- is its ability to convey information from one mind to another, AKA its intelligence and intelligibility.

When we listen to the radio, for example, it is because voices are able to ride piggyback on the radio waves. But what's happening when we, say, stare at Michelangelo's Pieta? It's just light and shade, photons striking the back of the eyes. How is the aesthetic power encoded into the waves, such that it is impossible to miss the power?

The point is, "beauty mysteriously exceeds the aesthetic capacity of the visible and audible elements out of which it arises." It can by no means be reduced to its carrier, but uses the medium the way our brains deploy sound vibrations to convey meaning from mind to mind.

Well, what I hoped would be a quick wrap-up has turned into a windy introduction. To be continued...

Monday, January 30, 2017

Living in the Real Worlds

There are always the Two Worlds alluded to in the previous post. A sane -- or let's just say rightly ordered -- person knows them as science and religion, or spirit and matter, or subject and object, etc. What he will not do is conflate the two, or refer to one by the name of the other.

For example, a properly religious person doesn't confuse, say, the book of Genesis with science, just as a properly scientific person doesn't confuse the Big Bang with divine creation (which is vertical and necessary, not horizontal and contingent).

The two worlds could be a consequence of our "two brains," i.e., left and right cerebral hemispheres. However, I think it is more likely that the two brains are a consequence of the two worlds.

There are many ways to approach this question of the Two Worlds. When I was a boy, I attended Sunday School, which promulgated a world utterly different from the one I learned about -- or, more problematically, experienced -- the other six days. There was no way to reconcile the two, so I just jettisoned the Sunday world by the time I was ten or eleven.

For a while I got by on the one world hypothesis. But not for long. Early on in my adolescence I was rudely reintroduced to the multiword hypothesis. Or rather, it reintroduced itself, splitting me in two. No, I wasn't schizophrenic, but there was no question of being inhabited by an Other that I could never quite reconcile with my "self."

Probably this is what prompted me to enter grad school in psychology, but that wasn't until I was about 25. Prior to that I had begun to informally study psychology, and in hindsight I can see that it was in order to try to make sense of the two worlds.

I was immediately drawn to psychoanalysis, since it begins with the principle that we always live within this tension of two worlds, the conscious (CS) and unconscious (UCS) minds. The second world that wordlessly shadows your existence is the "unconscious." The purpose of psychoanalytic therapy is to assimilate more of the UCS into the CS, so that one might live a more harmonious life -- without the two constantly bickering over their different agendas.

Very shortly after Freud invented psychoanalysis, the field splintered into dozens of variants, because everyone had a different idea about the nature of the second world. Jung, for example, thought it opened out into religious concerns; some thought it was about power, or identity, or sexual release, or "being."

Bion was the most flexible, in that he thought it was just a confrontation with O. You could say that O is simply the other world in all its possibilities. We could -- we do -- spend our lives metabolizing O, but there is no end to it, for it is literally inexhaustible.

It seems to me that this creates a fertile field for irony, the reason being that no matter how complete our world, it will always be haunted by O, making it impossible to speak of this world in a completely earnest and "singleminded" manner. Rather, any world we posit is really a quote-unquote "world." Something in us always knows it can't be the real world, and that there is always more to it.

Now interestingly, it also seems to me that we might very well rename Gödel incompleteness theorem the "irony theorem." Thanks to Gödel, we know going in that any attempt to reduce things to one world just won't cut it. We can try, but the resultant world will either be incomplete or inconsistent. We can only pretend otherwise.

The bottom line is that any world we can come up with must be looked at ironically. It must be presented with a wink, in full knowledge that it is a just-so story. There is and never will be a Theory of Everything. Only theories of "everything."

What if we could actually enclose ourselves in our own little theories? What a nightmare that would be! In fact, as we've discussed in the past, this is one of the things that made me leave psychology behind (or below, rather), because it was frankly depressing to be confined to one of its models, no matter how expansive.

Now I would say that the other world is God; or better, it is a vertical spectrum that is always at a right angle to our horizontal existence. We live at the intersection, the crossroads of the two. Once we understand this, then we can make finer gradations and distinctions within these worlds.

For example, in the horizontal world we can study history, or biology, or anthropology, you name it. And in the vertical world we can explore ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, theology, mysticism, etc. But don't think you can explore just one world and ignore the other. Imagine, for example, studying "art," but on a purely horizontal basis. Doing so is reduced to decorating your prison walls -- with a lot of kitsch or worse, e.g., infrahuman doodling.

Or, imagine studying politics with no reference to the vertical. There are purblind worldlings who insist that politics is about "power" and nothing more. Is this statement true? If so, then it obviously transcends power, because power is neither true nor false; it just is.

Thankfully, America's founders began with truth, in particular, self-evident truths about our natural rights, which it was the purpose of power to protect. In short, we grant the state powers that are both specific and limited, for the ultimate purpose of protecting our intrinsic rights. The point is, the founders explicitly went about trying to harmonize the two worlds. We grant limited horizontal power in order to protect and promote the vertical.

Which is why the left has been bitching about it ever since. The secular left begins with the principle that there is only one world -- which means that the second world will simply reappear in a disguised form.

But this also explains their conspicuous lack of irony: they posit their simplistic one world, oblivious to Gödel's Irony Theorem that renders their little world so laughable. Which is why their naive appeals to "science" never fail to elicit a chuckle.

As Theodore Dalrymple observes, "A sense of irony is the first victim of utopian dreams." This occurred to me when I saw this tendentious checklist of TRUMPIAN FASCISM! I forget where I found it, but the author claimed that Trump had already fulfilled numbers 1, 4, 7, and 10, so we're about a week away from death camps.

1. Taking sides with a foreign power against domestic opposition. 2. Detention of journalists.

3. Loss of press access to the White House.

4. Made-up charges against those who disagree with the government.

5. Use of governmental power to target individual citizens for retribution.

6. Use of a terrorist incident or an international incident to take away civil liberties.

7. Persecution of an ethnic or religious minority, either by the Administration or its supporters.

8. Removal of civil service employees for insufficient loyalty or membership in a suspect group (e.g. LGBT, Muslim, and other groups).

9. Use of the Presidency to incite popular violence against individuals or organizations.

10. Defying the orders of courts, including the Supreme Court.

But we could use the same list to prove Obama was a fascist, for example, taking sides with Iran, declaring war on Fox news and other non-leftist outfits, repeatedly being overruled by the Supreme Court, persecuting Catholics, inciting violence against police, etc.

The (abrupt) end, because we're out of time.