Thursday, June 23, 2011

A billion years from now...

A billion years from now will anything I might do today matter in the slightest? A lot depends on how we answer this question. It's not all that different than Paul Johnson's query in hisQuest For God. (A book I heartily recommend) "If God does exist, and if in consequence we are called to another life when this one ends, a momentous set of consquences follows, which should affect every day, every moment almost, of our earthly existence." That's largely what I am saying when I suggest that what we believe shapes our societies in many ways, sometimes predictably, sometimes surprisingly. But what does it mean in the scale of the life of the universe?

In Chapter Nine of his City of God, entitled Concerning the Foreknowledge of God and the Free Will of Man, in Opposition to the Definition of Cicero, St. Augustine went to some pains to deal with the problem of free will. He quotes Cicero:

"...for the knowledge of future things being granted, there follows a chain of consequences which ends in this, that there can be nothing depending on our own free wills. And further, if there is anything depending on our wills, we must go backwards by the same steps of reasoning till we arrive at the conclusion that there is no foreknowledge of future things.

Like Augustine, Cicero believed the world was the creation of an all-powerful, all knowing God. But if he is all powerful and all knowing, doesn't that mean that every event is foreordained? And if that's true, then human beings cannot really be evil- or good, for that matter. We are merely automatons carrying out the will of God. Either we have free will or God has foreknowledge. It's one or the other, and Cicero chose the first scenario. Such a conclusion was unacceptable to Augustine. Both had to be true. God must be omniscient, and man must have free will. Without free will the entire moral structure of Christianity collapses. But neither can Christian belief stand without the omniscience of God. How did Augustine get out of this impasse? He proposed that free will was among the attributes God gave Man at the Creation. Men were free to control their own actions, and could therefore choose to do good or evil. At the same time God, being all-knowing, knows what actions men will choose. Thus men have free will and God has foreknowledge, too. This is a little too tricky for me. It also seems a little unfair- if we are good it is only due to God's influence, but if we are bad it's our fault. Scientific materialists also have a stake in the game. If you think that everything is determined according to physical components, then free will has to be a myth. On the other hand, without a belief in an orderly, logical cosmos, there can be no science. A scientist may not be able to believe in a personal deity of the sort Augustine espoused, but he has to believe that there is an ultimate truth, and that at least some of that truth may be discernible by the human mind.

But I don't think either Cicero or Augustine noticed a deeper problem in their conception of God. In Chapter 25 Augustine made a statement he must have thought was entirely uncontroversial. This statement must be as true for a scientific atheist as for Augustine, although the scientist might frame it differently.

"If they wish to know what the Almighty cannot do, I shall tell them. He cannot lie."

Why is this a problem? Because it implies that there is a power that precedes God, that there is such a thing as truth, and such a thing as falseness, and not even God can overturn this pre-primordial order. He cannot make a lie into the truth, and he cannot make a truth into a lie. I'm not well versed in theological questions, but isn't this issue at the root of the famous Regensburg Lecture Pope Benedict gave a few years ago?

Intended as a defence of reason in the face of postmodern relativism and the Koranic literalism of Islam, a long ago conversation between a Byzantine emperor and an educated Persian was used by the pope as an illustration. In his article on the lecture in First Things, Father Francis Schall summed up the gist of this ancient argument.

We should understand the significance of this issue. Can God change his "reason," that is, can he make what was evil to be good or reasonable? Is what is good or evil dependent on a kind of whim of God so that worship of God means following whatever God is said to say even if it is contradictory to what He said previously. Does the Koran negate the Old and New Testaments? Does it negate reason? In other words, is God's revelation stable? Can we rely on its truth to be true everywhere and always?

The Islamic clerics were very quick to spot an insult to their doctrines. To prove how reasonable Islam was they called for violent riots to take place all over the Islamic world against the Pope. This is probably the passage from the lecture that aroused so much indignation. Say what you will about the imams, they at least understood the meaning of the Pope's words. It completely escaped the popular media.

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature.[5] The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.[6] Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.[7]

Clearly, Ibn Hazm's concept of God was in direct opposition to Augustine's. For Ibn Hazm, God is all-powerful, full stop, unfettered by concepts of good and evil. The essence of God is power. Good and evil have nothing to do with it. So therefore the mission of all good little Muslims is to spread God's power over all the earth. Since good and evil are irrelevant any means of accomplishing that purpose can be justified. In the last decade Westerners have become familiar again with Islam. Thought to be moribund, it now seems to be on the upswing again, and often with the collaboration of elements of Western thought that would seem inimical to its own beliefs. Some of those elements of modern thought are concerned with "liberation" themes, mostly anti-capitalist, black, gay, and feminist, all of which portray traditional Western mores as oppressive, and so apply that mythology to Muslims. The truth is that history is replete with examples of terribly repressive and murderous regimes. but it is only Islam that condones them. If they think Western society has been oppressive, they are in for a rude shock if they find themselves in the clutches of Shariah law. To any rational observer modern progressives and ardent jihadists would appear to have nothing in common, but this very theme of the universe as a capricious force is at the root of both ideologies. In both ideologies it morphs into fatalism. For a Muslim, since God's moods and actions are entirely arbitrary, it does no good whatsoever to seek laws and principles that would help men to make the world a better place. Whatever Allah wills will be. The best a man can do is get what he can out of his mortal condition, and the best way to do that is to seek power over others, or to attach oneself to whatever power has the means to improve his material welfare, thereby carving out his own sphere of influence. Since Allah is capricious and unbound by any laws, neither is the Muslim.

This end result, which has played itself out in the Islamic world over and over for 1400 years, turns out to be remarkably similar to the social ideologies that have evolved in the West since the advent of scientific materialism. They aren't entirely the same. Scientific materialists have had a historic allegiance to the idea that they are working towards the welfare of mankind, but in recent years things have changed. The notion that mankind is a sort of cancer destroying the pristine beauty of nature has become uncontroversial on the campus. The whole thing is remarkably confused. Man is nothing but a minuscule and inconsequential part of the universe, but he is consequential enough to be a menace. Scientists, it seems, are no more immune to confusion than the rest of us. Politically, nihilism is the logical conclusion if you believe human beings are nothing but transient sparks of nothingness. Thus we have seen political movements like Bolshevism and Fascism which are little more than thinly veiled justifications for murder. Power is all that matters. No tomorrow, no yesterday, now is all that matters. Socially, it only seems obvious that if morality and free will are naive fictions, then what duty do we have except to our own pleasure? And where does that lead? Straight back to nihilism... in the personhood of goths, grunges and rappers.

Problems like this also intrude on scientific theory, especially its language- mathematics. An ongoing debate questions whether mathematics is "real." Another question is if other universes exist with laws entirely different from our own, and another is when the laws came into being. Are they an artifact of creation- the so-called Big Bang- or were they the same as now, and will they always be so? After all, why should the universe obey laws at all? How does a galaxy at one end of the cosmos 'know' how to behave? Why should the elements in that distant galaxy be the same as ours? How do they 'know'? And in that context how can there be such a thing as free will. What is there that we could possibly do or think that would have the least effect on the vastness of creation? Not only is there a vastness of space, there is a vastness of time. The lifetime of the earth is measured in billions of years, compared to which our four score and ten amount to nothing. The earth was formed about six billion years ago, and the sun is halfway through its career. What does the ten thousand year history of man since the retreat of the glaciers amount to in comparison?

The theme of this blog as originally conceived was that the history of human thought is like a great conversation across time carried out through literature, religion, science, and art. This conversation, implicit in the arts, has become overt in the Western philosophical tradition. Religious movements reify the thoughts of philosophers and the insights of poets by choosing among them, codifying them and putting those choices into prescriptions for social behaviour. Societies become defined by the belief sets they adopt, and the subsequent evolution of the society is to a large extent determined by what it believes. In recent Western history this has amounted to a dialog between scientific atheism and Christian idealism, and this was my focus, but here I am a few years later holding the end of the thread in my hand with no clear idea of what thread to pick up next.

Maybe the difficulty comes from thinking in terms of either/or. Going back to my thoughts on the everyday implications of the Heisenberg Principle, perhaps one's perception of truth does depend on what one chooses to examine... Augustine's predicament, for instance. If you choose to conceptualize a Being capable of creating everything we know or can know, from our very thoughts and desires to the structure of the universe, then it must follow that He is all-knowing and all-powerful, that time and space is not his reality but his invention. Then how can anything that happens within that spatial/temporal structure be unknowable by him? And yet, how does that square with the concept of sin, which is meaningless without assigning responsibility to the sinner who must needs have a will of his own by which it follows that the willful actions of an individual human can affect the course of events in the universe? Like Cicero, logic compels me to say it's one or the other.

The essence of the Heisenberg Principle is that one can know with certainty either the wave nature of a quantum event or its particle nature. Following the logic indicates the reality of the event depends on the choice of the observer. Does this mean that the observer causes the event by the mere act of observing? That's a question that's still up for debate- or maybe deafening silence.

Science's problem is not unlike Augustine's quandary when you think about it. At the everyday level of our common experience we obviously have a lot of choices. If I go to the beach on a hot day and shed most of my clothes I will surely get a bad sunburn. Whether I do such a thing is entirely a matter of my will. Choose one course of action and I will have one outcome. If I choose the other I will have another outcome. Equally obviously, my range of choices are limited. I may want to levitate but I can't. I may not want to work but if I don't work I will go hungry. One of the characteristics of human existence is our constant quest to overcome our limitations. In fact you could say that about all living organisms. They actively seek conditions that will be to their benefit. They actively adapt whenever they can. The means may change from species to species. Regardless of what you may think of evolution, the entire kaleidoscopic range of living forms are achieved through variations on a few very complex carbon based molecules. In humans the most outstanding physical variation is a huge increase in the size of the cortex of the brain.

I can say on my own account that the drive to make sense of it all is never ending, and I can say from observation that it is the essence of being human- maybe of life itself- to probe the universe, not to dominate it, but in order to understand it. I recently saw a rather fatuous Imax. Publicized as a chronicle of the Tour de France bicycle race, I was hoping to see vistas of the Alps, Pyrenees, and other features of the French landscape. It turned out to be more like an animated junior high school film on how the human brain recovers from an injury than a travelogue. Nevertheless, it made the point that the neurons and axons rebuild themselves. But it requires an act of will on the part of the injured individual. He must actively strive to recover, and as he works, the network grows and reconnects.

So it seems that when you look at things at the human scale we obviously have will. Looked at from the cosmic scale, whether or not your cosmic scale includes God or not, it seems absurd. Certainly, the prevailing opinion among average men and women and among the shapers of opinion, is that man is utterly insignificant, that nothing we do matters in the slightest in the grand scheme of things. I may not be able to prove it with absolute certainty, but I think prevailing opinion is wrong.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Aquinas and cell phones

A young Chinese girl sits down in a chair nearby, reaches into her purse and pulls out a small plastic object. It is a telephone. She flips it open, stabs at it with her finger and puts it to her ear. Yawn. Why mention such a commonplace scene? Well, for one thing, it wasn't that long ago that it wasn't so commonplace, in fact would be a scene in a science fiction novel. When I was a boy regular telephones were only common in cities and well-populated areas. The telephone on my uncle's farm was bigger than a shoebox and hung on the wall. Powered by a car battery, it was slightly in advance of some phones that had to be cranked, but quite behind the private line we had in the city. In the countryside telephone lines and exchanges were expensive and had to be shared, as in the Hank Williams song:

"The woman on the party line's a nosy thing

She picks up the receiver when she knows it's my ring,"

But it's not my intention to provide a history of telephony here, except to note how a new set of possibilities opens up whenever a paradigm shift takes place. Please don't confuse this idea with Marshall MacLuhan's Medium is the Message meme. MacLuhan was fully a child of his time and believed that we were all passive receivers of the environment, as if we were not much different than Pavlov's salivating dogs. As it turns out, dogs are much more complex than Pavlov suspected. In my model all living things are very much active participants. When a paradigm shifts the rules of the game change, just as in cards, and when the rules change not only human beings but life itself makes adjustments. We are as quick to explore and probe what we can do under the new dispensation as any puppy sniffing out a new home.

It may seem irrelevant to mention the sex and ethnicity of the person who prompted the opening paragraph, but consider. At the same time my uncle was picking up the receiver to listen in on his neighbours' conversations, this girl's grandparents were experiencing the opening phases of the most lethal regime that has ever set out to murder its own citizenry. One of the reasons it was possible to exercise control of the vast Chinese population was because of inventions like the telephone. Instant communication undermined the localism that had persisted in China for at least three thousand years regardless of who the overlords might be. But now that telephones have escaped the tyranny of centralized telephone exchanges, China is swarming with girls like her, girls who no longer pay attention to their elders who control the Party. Could this mean the end of thousands of years of Confucian deference to the patriarch of the family? If so, tremendous changes are in store for a land that absorbed all previous invaders. No longer subject to the dictates of an authoritarian father or a remote state, she can think for herself. Her knowledge of the world is no longer limited to what information is presented to her at home or at state run schools. Furthermore, what she learns through her own experience doesn't stop with her but is shared with her friends who may live back in China or who may be studying physics at Berkeley.

That isn't what the inventors of cell phone technology intended to do. It was the farthest thing from their minds. In any case, the chances are that the girl chattering on her flip phone is entirely ignorant of cell phone technology and probably profoundly uninterested. The inventors laid the groundwork for a new technology, and if they were interested in Chinese philosophy it had nothing to do with the problem of transmitting a conversation over long distances without wires. Manufacturers were interested in knowing if this was an opportunity to benefit their shareholders. Chinese history didn't enter into it. And so on down the line. The girl and millions like her were only interested in talking to each other from far away or across the street, or sending and messages. The girl with the flip phone doesn't know the researcher, the researcher doesn't know the girl. They are pursuing their independent interests. So we now have Twitter, Face Time, and a host of personal messaging services, that facilitate their wishes by adding a new layer of meaning to wireless transmission. Wherever, whenever. The circumference of the earth, time zones, physical separation, are no longer barriers to communication. Those barriers have collapsed. These things didn't just happen, they came about through an interplay among many actors, none of whom had any thought of Confucianism. And yet the subsequent history of the planet may be affected. Nothing in the microcosmic events could be used to predict the direction of this change. It's still in progress.

I'm reading Aquinas' Shorter Summa at the moment- I lack the fortitude to tackle the full version. Medieval (Christian) philosophers have a bad rap as far as I'm concerned. Far from being supercilious and petty, I think they were enormously subtle and penetrating. Thomas lived in a period when Europe was rediscovering the intellectual heritage it had nearly lost when Roman order collapsed. Aristotle was being read again and to some he was a disturbing challenge to the painstakingly constructed philosophical edifice theologians had built since the Dark Ages. It was Aquinas' goal to reconcile Greece with Jerusalem, reason with faith by using reason to justify faith. Atheists routinely deny the validity of faith. But what is faith except an acceptance of a set of premises. Christians accept the premise that there was a man/god named Jesus who came to earth so he could experience suffering and death and lead us to everlasting life. Mohammedans accept the premise that Mohammed wrote the words of god into the Koran. Scientific atheists accept the premise that reality consists solely of matter and energy and that there is nothing to be found outside those parameters.

In fact it is impossible to prove any of these premises. That kind of proof is in an eerie way, a very eerie way, unavailable to us. The religious articles of faith are inaccessible to us because we can't go back in time to verify the facts. The best we can do is search for records and archeological evidence. The scientific criticism is structurally unprovable. If there is another existence separate from the space time structure we experience, and if our faculties of knowing are confined to this space time structure then it would be impossible for us to know about it through the methods science employs. Although it seems as if mathematics is one tool that can carry us somewhat beyond what is usually knowable, the results cannot be demonstrated through the experimental method.

It goes without saying then, that the claims of religious people for the existence of a supernatural realm, of an immaterial and immortal soul, and of a Supreme Being are beyond proof in the scientific, demonstrable sense. Or are they? In the 20th century, before really powerful reflector telescopes were built the existence of Pluto was unsuspected. Nevertheless was studying the movements of the known planets and noticed that they didn't quite follow the orbits predicted by theory. He was able to infer from his calculations that another presence, of a certain mass, must be in orbit outside the orbit of Neptune. Pluto is no longer considered a planet but that hardly matters. What does matter is that an undetectable object was hypothesized on the basis of its effects on other objects in the solar system.

The discoverer was quickly vindicated as optical technology improved, but an earlier astronomical theory was completely demolished by a few late medieval philosophers- Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, who solved the problem of planetary orbits through the use of mathematical models. Galileo with his telescope was able to bring observation in line with the new theory. The older theory, current since the Classical period, assumed that all the heavenly bodies revolved around a stationary earth. The mathematics worked pretty well with regard to the stars, but the planets were different. The interesting thing about Copernicus was that he wasn't trying to overturn 1000 years of accepted science. He was only trying to make the calendar more accurate so the Church could be sure of when to celebrate Easter.

So maybe it's possible to infer the existence of a force, a dynamic, or something that impinges on our universe but which isn't really part of the universe. And just as the Ptolemaic cosmology could not explain the movements of the planets without a veritable tangle of special pleading, neither can science as it is now understood explain the processes of life. Darwinian theory is a bad joke. Quantum theory makes no sense and can't be reconciled with relativity. Every few years somebody comes up with a new idea of how to solve the conundrum but none have succeeded.

We usually think that the reason the ancients thought the sun and the stars revolved around the earth is because it satisfies common sense. Look at the sky. We are at the centre. The sun and the stars rise in the east and set the west. I think that implies a serious underestimation of the intelligence of the ancient thinkers. In fact, the original problem that led the philosophers of the Ptolemaic era to construct their theory remains today, and can be summarized by this well known formulation: Why is there something rather than nothing? In general, the ancients had an answer- God. The trick was to figure out how we could possibly come to understand anything about the kind of Being God would have to be in order to be the Creator of all.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Do we exist?

The first paragraph of Paul Johnson's The Quest for God outlines the consequences of whether or not one believes in God.

"...If God does exist, and if in consequence we are called to another life when this one ends, a momentous set of consequences follows, which should affect every day, every moment almost, of our earthly existence. Our life then becomes a mere preparation for eternity and must be conducted throughout with our future in view. If, on the other hand, God does not exist, another momentous set of consequences follows. This life then becomes the only one we have, we have no duties or obligations except to ourselves, and we need weigh no other considerations except our own interests and pleasures..."

As clear and concise as this statement is, it omits an important consideration. Mere belief in a Supreme Power does not automatically assume the survival of the soul after death, nor does it automatically follow that the universe created by that Supreme Power has a moral dimension. As far as I know, only Christianity has built into its tenets the assumption that God is good, that He wishes us to be good, and that he gives us the choice of whether to be good or not. Thus we earn our place in his heavenly abode or we spurn it. Of course the underlying assumption is that there is such a thing as "good," and this assumption has been challenged in recent years by certain schools of philosophy.

The first chapter of Genesis presents a brief chronology of how God created the cosmos. It's a chronology not much at odds with current scientific convention. Both cosmologies postulate a sudden burst of creation far in the past in which time and space came into being, energy and matter following in its wake. Before that event there was neither time nor space, but a Singularity, in modern parlance, "And the earth was without form and void," as the bible puts it. The details of "The Big Bang," as it was dubbed by Frederick Hoyle, are subjects of debate, but if we interpret 'light' to be energy, and 'darkness' to be matter, then the statement that "God divided the light from the darkness" would only be objectionable to a scientist for its poetic nature and its lack of mathematical rigour. There is no room for poetry in modern science, while the Bible says little about mathematics, Genesis confining itself to a brief comment on the relationship of the heavens to the calendar.

But there is another creation story in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis, the familiar one of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the serpent and so on. These chapters are more like a fable than a sober cosmology, with an even larger, a dominant poetic dimension. Does that mean we shouldn't take it seriously?

Interesting as it is, let's skip over the description of Eden and the rivers flowing out of Eden and concentrate on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is where the fable gets serious. In the midst of beauty and innocence is something else, something that doesn't really belong in such an idyllic paradise. Adam and Eve are enjoined by God not to eat the fruit of this tree or they will surely die. What could that word, 'death,' mean to beings who had no experience of it, who had no acquaintance with evil?

One is moved to ask why God put it there, and the answer is obvious. Without a knowledge of evil we can have no awareness of good. It is as if we have a moral singularity here.

At any rate, Adam and Eve chose to eat of the fruit, and it was that choice that exploded the singularity, the paradise where all was peace and harmony. Not until then the world that we know, the REAL world, where existence is a constant struggle, where death is never far away and is in any case inevitable, where we never really know what is around the next corner, actually comes into being. It is a hard world, our powers are insufficient to guarantee our safety, bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. As somebody once said life is like a movie where we have come in halfway through. We will never see the ending, but we have to figure out what's happening as quickly as possible... because we are in the movie. We are participants, not mere watchers on high. But it was through the choice of Adam and Eve to partake of that knowledge that caused the creation of the world we are all familiar with. They set it all in motion. God merely acceded to their wishes.

In modern science such a belief would be absurd, but in Platonic science it wasn't absurd at all. Platonists theorized a hierarchy of universes, all connected to each other and yet separate. Our universe is flawed, all things are imperfect copies of a more ideal state existing in a higher dimension. In our universe there is no such thing as a perfect triangle. All triangular things down below are imperfect copies of a perfect template in that higher dimension. Adam and Eve would fit into that sort of cosmology with no difficulty, as perfect templates of which we mortals are but poor copies.

Whether you believe in it or not, this system of thought has grandeur and beauty.

Naturally, as poor copies we must seek guidance to navigate through our brief spans, we seek ways of improving the odds of getting through it with our souls intact. Christianity proposes that there is a solution. As Aquinas put it in the introduction to the Shorter Summa, "...To restore man who had been laid low by sin, to the heights of divine glory, the Word of the eternal Father, although containing all things in His immensity, willed to become small." He took unto Himself our "littleness."

This is the fundamental belief of Christian doctrine, that God came to earth as a man, suffered and died for our sins, bearing a message of hope. Atheists of all ages reply that this is preposterous, yet this belief transformed the world.

Why did Christ come to earth? To redeem the choice made by Adam and Eve. And yet, I'm not sure if we have ever gotten that original story right. Not being a scholar, I'm on pretty weak ground here, but so what. My intent in all of these essays has been to show that belief in God, in an immortal soul, in a grander universe than what can be perceived by our senses is imminently reasonable, but so far I have not brought overt religious doctrine into the discussion, not wanting to outrage the sensitive souls of any atheists who might come across this blog. I guess it's time to cross the Rubicon, and now that I'm retired I hope to be more regular in my postings.

Getting back to Genesis, the implication is that it was the very decision of Adam and Eve to take on the knowledge of Good and Evil that caused the REAL world we know to come into being. This seems even more preposterous than the Gospels' account of a resurrection but I hope to show it is not unreasonable at all-- or at least it's no more unreasonable than the fact that we exist. Atheists always forget how preposterous that is.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Where do I begin?

TWICE or thrice had I loved thee,
Before I knew thy face or name ;
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame

Angels affect us oft, and worshipp'd be.

Still when, to where thou wert, I came,

Some lovely glorious nothing did I see.

But since my soul, whose child love is,

Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do,

More subtle than the parent is

Love must not be, but take a body too ;

And therefore what thou wert, and who,

I bid Love ask, and now That it assume thy body, I allow,

And fix itself in thy lip, eye, and brow...

AIR AND ANGELS. by John Donne

Once it grasps that an outer world exists, the self begins to discover where he leaves off and where the other begins. At first it seems obvious. It is his skin, his flesh, that is the outer limit of himself. It is his blood which flows when his flesh is gored, it is he who feels the pain. Beneath his skin, inside his skin, is where his personhood resides. It is his body which is himself.
Gradually, however, an awareness grows that it is not his body which is himself, it is his mind, his consciousness, the awareness itself which is his self. In many ways, his body is also the outer world. This becomes more obvious as we get older and infirmities develop. Then the body becomes an enemy, or at least a beast of burden that must be coddled and fed for it to do the work required of it.
Conversely, he learns very early that he cannot live in isolation. His sense of self requires an awareness of who he is, and that cannot be conceived of without reference to his family, his community, his ancestry, his language, his religious beliefs. This psychic armature he builds around his sense of self is analogous to the physical structure of his body. What he is depends on his physical structure. Who he is depends on his psychic structure, but the boundary keeps shifting. Follow that reasoning far enough, as many have, and, which may be the truth, there is no boundary. For me to be depends on the universe being exactly what it is. Are all distinctions illusory, then?
It is his physical self coupled with his psychic self that is the face he presents to the world.
But if he thinks about it even more deeply, he recognizes that both his physical self and his psychic self are merely shells. A deeper level of selfhood exists which stands above both of these manifestations. That deeper sensibility is the voice that arbitrates, approving or disapproving whatever may seek entry into this protected space.
The origin of this voice is not so easily traced. The materialistically minded defer to the physical structures. The religiously minded invoke a supernatural explanation. These are fairly standard divisions of human mentality. But that still begs the question of why some of us are drawn to one school of thought and others to a different one. One man is drawn to the inner life, another is fond of the objects of the world. It isn't a matter of sitting down at age four with your parents and being asked to choose. We grow into our dispositions as surely as we grow into adolescence, and without being asked for our preferences. Only a few of us systematically ransack our inner motivations, even fewer turn them into schools of philosophy. A few of those, such as David Hume, of Hume's Fork fame, go so far in one direction that they categorically and vehemently deny the validity of the other. But very few materialists would deny the existence of an inner life, and very few idealists would deny the existence of objective reality.
Most members of humankind unconsciously use these unexamined motivations to blithely adopt a set of principles to guide them through life. But although they don't often think about these principles, the deepest of passions can be aroused when they are challenged, and the most abject despondency when they are undermined.
The question remains, why do we wish to believe one thing over another? What is this voice that says yea or nay at every moment of our existence? What is the source of that desire? I can't answer that ultimate question. The only certainty I feel (and it's one of those yea or nay feelings) is the one that says that it is my subjective will that acts on objective reality. Objective reality is passive. It just is, and cares nothing about me or my aspirations. It is indifferent. But I am not indifferent, either about myself or about the objective world. I want to live but that's not sufficient. I want happiness, satisfaction, purpose, validation. And for that I must seek to exert force upon objective reality, I want to shape it, mould it into something it would not be if it weren't for me. Many of these mouldings have to do with my physical well-being, but that is never enough. I may love the natural world, bird song, sunsets, green meadows, but it only makes me want to furnish my life with things I especially like. I want to colour my walls with that burnished glow of sunset, I want to carve a chair from the strong, beautiful wood of the oak tree, I want to make my own songs, I want to situate my house so I can see the mountain in the distance from my porch.
Again, where is the dividing point between me and the world? And while the objective world is readily apparent to my senses, and the many and subtle ways in which I am connected and intertwined with the entire universe, it is not apparent at all to what sort of a universe my inner vision is directed. But it has not escaped my notice that ever since Galileo first invented the telescope our range of perception has broadened to the point where we can almost see as far as the beginning of creation. And yet, already some scientists theorize that more universes exist beyond the one we now see. Perhaps future scientists will figure out a way of 'seeing' them, too. Similarly, our ability to see at the smallest scales has improved exponentially since Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope. First, unseen living things, the microbes, then the structures inside the cell, then molecules and now it is possible to 'see' an atom. The atom was thought to be the indivisible building block of matter until it was shown to consist of still smaller particles, and even those smaller particles are made up of even smaller particles- though 'particle' may not be the proper word. In other words, no matter how far we learn to see outward there is always something farther away, and no matter how closely we scrutinize matter, there always seems to be something smaller.
But so far (in modern times) we haven't devoted anywhere near as much effort to discovering what it is that lives in the deepest parts of our awareness. What is it in me that is aware, and how does it work?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Self and other

When it comes right down to it the only way we know about anything directly is through our feelings. Some things hurt, others feel good. This is probably the first knowledge we have as we take that first breath and feel the air on our naked skin. We open our eyes and see light. Vague figures handle us, and we have no control over what they do. We soon notice there are some things we like and some things we don't. We get hungry. Sometimes it is too warm or too cold. We learn that to remedy our dissatisfactions we must complain to those beings who handle us. Unable to speak or ambulate, lacking strength or even teeth, we are helpless. But if we make the right noises someone will come and give us food or clean our bottoms or tuck a blanket around us. We soon come to realize that this person has a name, mama, and it becomes important to learn how to make that sound, mama. Because when that magic word is uttered, smiles and coos reward us, and then we are happy together, which is something very important, but not exactly in the same way as food is important.
As the months go by we are so engrossed at learning everything we can about this little circle we inhabit that only gradually do we become aware that it is a part, a very small part, of a greater world. Our powers are growing too but not as fast as the outer world. So busy are we at learning 'the rules' that we are not inclined to think about a fundamental truth that forms the foundation of all our aspirations. That truth is this: there is a me, and there is a world apart from me. How does he know this? Because the world does not always respond to his demands. In the beginning a child hardly knows the outer world is separate from himself, but because everything he wants comes from outside he is inclined to think it exists for him. It is an unpleasant surprise to discover that he cannot have everything he wants. There are two realities. One is the inner reality of needs and wants. Those he knows about from direct experience. It is himself. The other is the outer reality from which we seek satisfactions. That is the other. You could almost say that maturation is the process of defining the difference between oneself and external reality. Life is a struggle to define what we are. Where do I begin and where does the rest of creation begin?
Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, is the conclusion of a long sequence of logical reasoning arrived at by the philosopher Rene Descartes. It is because he is able to think that he knows he exists, and he knows this by introspection. But isn't it just the opposite? Isn't the experience we have of the outer world what convinces us that we exist? Absent all sensory input could we really know of our own existence at all?
It soon behooves a child to learn as much as possible about this outer reality because it has a will independent of his own, and furthermore it's desires do not coincide with his own. Sometimes the outer world's aims are in conflict with his. Competitors may be hostile. Predators see him as food. It is impossible to learn enough on a case by case basis, and he soon learns to look for connections between these separate cases. All fire burns. If I pull the cat's tail he will scratch me. Large things are more to be feared than small things as a general rule, but small though they be, wasps carry a painful sting. A jar on top of the fridge usually has cookies in it, and if I pull the chair over to the fridge I can reach it when nobody's looking. Life is full of rules and lessons, and though it's fun to learn by oneself, it is sometimes a good idea to listen to the experience of others. We have learned there is an order to the world, and we find we can manipulate it to some degree.
Science is nothing but a refined version of these investigations. Science is all about that external world. But science can tell us nothing about the interior world, though it has made a few pitiful attempts.
Primarily, it has no basis for accounting for why we place a value on useless things- like beauty, love, friendship. When scientists try to explain they invoke the mysterious force they call natural selection, because obviously (to them) something useful has to be involved. The solution then is to find how these values contribute to our survival. However, the unasked question is, why survive? Why live? Living is a hell of a lot of trouble. But even if it wasn't, even if all physical needs were met- fed an adequate diet every day, given shelter from the elements, protection from all dangers, provided with every comfort- we know that we would not be satisfied. Something would be lacking, something that has nothing to do with the survival of the body.
Often it is thought that the thing lacking can be satisfied by satiating bodily pleasures. But there is only so much sex one can have, only so much food one can eat. Those things we obtain from the outside, but the desire to live comes from the inside, and so does the desire to do more than merely live.
In the real world, Plato observed, such a thing as a perfect triangle could never be found. Our world is one of decay and imperfection. Only in the ideal world of geometry did a perfect triangle exist, and this perfect world could only be known through introspection. This in itself is part of the search for beauty and order, and I would contend that it is the primal human drive. We live to seek beauty and order, to disentangle the confusions of the experienced, external world.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Subjective vs objective

In recent years there has been much debate over the validity of objective knowledge. The word 'objective' comes from medieval Latin and means 'the things presented to the mind,' but in common parlance it refers to the common sense notion that there are things in the world that have a separate existence from us. A horse is a horse to both me and thee. Not only is it common sense, but all rational thought, including science depends on it. An object, therefore, is something external to the self.
On the other hand, 'subjective' refers to inner feelings. A horse is a horse, but how I feel about a horse may not be the same to me or thee. To a jockey, a horse is valued according to how well it can run. To a horsefly, a horse is a banquet. What the horse thinks is hard to tell.
Certain schools of thought in Western philosophy have used the latter observation to cast doubt on the validity of objective knowledge. They are especially fond of trotting out, not a horse, but a broomstick, and partially submerge it in a pool of water. "Yikes," they cry. "Our eyes deceive us. They tell us that the broomstick is bent where it enters the water. So much for objectivity. So much for the value of our observations." The fact that human beings are perfectly capable of compensating for the refraction of light is forgotten in the exciting glow of self-congratulation. How clever they are. Dumbfounded by this brilliant insight, another school of philosophers, the post modernists, labouring mightily, took the logic one step further. Obviously, if we cannot trust our perceptions then there is no absolute truth. One man's truth is just as good as another's. Eureka! Thus, by a commodius vicus of recirculation we arrive at Howth Castle, now known as cultural relativism. Relativism is a word made magic by the theories of a Swiss customs clerk.
Einstein's theories of relativity, incomprehensible to most of us, and the even more baffling theories of quantum mechanics summed up in a document called the Copenhagen Convention, delivered a more telling blow to the idea of objective reality. Alas, they seemed to say, and proved it beyond doubt to all the world at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nothing is what it appears to be, and it is all but impossible for the human mind to grasp reality except through the workings of increasingly esoteric mathematical formulations. But still, they needed Hiroshima to prove the theories. It's pretty hard to argue against the objective truth of two incinerated cities.
But the objective world is only knowable to us through our senses. This was already noticed by Plato and his followers. Plato imagined a higher existence where the perishable and imperfect things known to our senses had a perfect, immutable and ageless reality, knowable by us not through our senses but through reason. Running with this idea, his successors over the following centuries imagined more and more elaborate spheres of existence, guarded over by hierarchies of angels or other fantastic beings. This became the accepted science of all the civilizations of the ancient world and lasted until the time of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and others who showed that the stars in the heavens were not arranged in the perfect spheres that the theory predicted. The earth and human beings were no longer at the centre of creation but merely insignificant specks in a vast ocean. From then on the prestige of our reasoning faculty waned while the importance of observations based on measurements gained importance. Numerical reasoning became the sine qua non of scientific reasoning, but the only way to establish the truth of the mathematics was by reference to the observable world.
We have never stopped puzzling over this issue. An English philosopher had a few things to say
about it.

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic ... [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought ... Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing.

Put into the formula that became known as Hume's Fork, it comes out like this:
Which line of reasoning led to this conclusion:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Here in a nutshell we have the foundational reasoning behind modern scientific atheism. As a statement of how the game of science should be played it is admirable. How much can we learn about the workings of nature by sticking to those two rules? Quite a lot. It's an extremely valuable and beneficial tool that has taken us from the beginning of time to the edge of the universe, from the unimaginably large scale of galaxies to the infinitesimally small scale of the atom. It's shown us that matter and energy are only different phases of the same thing. It is an incredible achievement. But when it is claimed that what science reveals is all there is to know then that is not a statement of science but of metaphysics, and nothing about metaphysics can be known in principle by use of the scientific method.
The application of scientific principles as a practical and powerful tool of inquiry has provided us with unprecedented material well-being. The conversion of science as a tool into science as a philosophy is perhaps the most important factor in explaining why humanity went insane in the 20th century.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Science in decline

Ideas vs things, logic vs the senses, grammar vs words, objective vs subjective- this is how we make sense of the world into which we are ushered at birth. Sounds pretty dualistic, doesn't it? Much of the history of Western thought and culture is the story of what we think about these dilemmas. At the moment we are sliding down a slope, though not many know it yet. Science is a faith as much as Catholicism, with which it shares a few basic assumptions, mainly that the universe follows laws accessible to reason. Catholic thought asserts that the creation we observe is a Great Thought emanating from the mind of a Supreme Creator. Where is the evidence, the Scientific Atheist asks?
The faith scientists have in objective truth reached its high point in the 19th century. I won't go to any trouble trying to fix this point, but I would say Karl Marx and the behaviourist psychologists marked the apogee, and World War One marked the beginning of the slide. One of the articles of faith of humanists and other varieties of scientific atheist was that Reason and Objective Truth would lead to a better, saner world. With superstition vanquished, religious wars and persecutions would end. Enlightened savants would lead us to a paradise on earth. Somehow, it didn't work out. Marxism was the political wing of Scientific Atheism and it has been the most lethal political system men have yet devised. Figures are hard to calculate because many of the perpetrators, or their successors, are still in power. Without counting related damage, the number of human beings killed by their own socialist, atheistic governments in the twentieth century approaches one hundred million. I repeat 100,000,000, over three times the population of Canada. And yet atheistic socialism does not lack for enthusiastic apologists, many in places of influence, especially in schools, the media. They are especially well established in the bureaucracies of all nations, and the United Nations. How they are able to justify themselves I have no idea.
Nevertheless, their influence over the mentality of the world's societies is on the wane, as is the materialistic dogma that inspired it. And so the pendulum has begun to swing back the other way.
The most obvious example is the environmental ideology. With one foot in the materialist camp, it regards itself as scientifically based. On the other hand, it has another foot in a far more ancient world view: Pantheism. Pantheism believes that the things and forces in nature are themselves divine. The classical mythology we know from Ovid is a very beautiful version of Pantheism. But whether they know it or not- and most of them don't- scientists and especially Darwinists, are also Pantheists. They would deny it of course, replying that Pantheists believe all things have soul, and they don't believe in the soul. Actually, they have just changed the words. Instead of Proserpine and Minerva, they invoke Natural Selection and Random Mutation. Scientists don't put faces on these forces to be sure, but that may be coming as the powers of prediction they have depended on begin to wane. At that point pseudo science comes along, like the climate change hysteria. Lacking proof of the desired result, climate 'scientists' had no compunctions about falsifying the data. We'll be seeing a lot more of that. What is actually happening is a loss of faith in the possibility of being objective. This loss of faith is so severe that it is a commonplace of modern philosophy that we can't know anything, that there is no such thing as truth. This is a school of philosophy known as postmodernism and it has confused many a mediocre mind. The More confusing the better!
Although I have emphasized the problems of materialism, I don't mean to say that it is wrong and the idealist view is right. What I think is wrong is the belief that for one to be right the other has to be wrong. That's where my discussion of words and grammar in language and logic and the senses in everyday experience comes in. I have tried to show that they work in tandem. Without a grammar for a word to act upon language could not exist. It would be an impossibility. Likewise, the scientific method is sound. An idea is proposed, a hypothesis. To prove or disprove it, an experiment is devised and carried out. The idea acts on the felt world to produce a predicted result- or not. Either way the experiment is successful, as eliminating bad ideas is just as important as finding good ideas. It's a way of eliminating the noise, of separating the wheat from the chaff.
It's a very good system, but I think it there are many more implications. But it is rather dualistic and philosophers have the same attitude toward dualism as Miss Muffet had to spiders. Calm down, fellows, and take a deep breath. It's going to get a lot worse.