Cross-post: becoming a traditionalist is only the beginning of thought

My quarrel with the thinking man

In his essay What we think about, G. K. Chesterton relates his perplexity at finding someone  write “Mr. Chesterton does not mean to enlighten us, for all we know he is modernist enough in his own thoughts.”

What the man really meant was this:  “Even poor old Chesterton must think; he can’t have actually left off thinking altogether; there must be some form of cerebral function going forward to fill the empty hours of his misdirected and wasted life; and it is obvious that if a man begins to think, he can only think more or less in the direction of Modernism.”  The Modernists do really think that.  That is the point.  That is the joke.

Now what we have really got to hammer into the heads of all these people, somehow, is that a thinking man can think himself deeper and deeper into Catholicism, but not deeper and deeper into difficulties about Catholicism.  We have got to make them see that conversion is the beginning of an active, fruitful, progressive, and even adventurous life of the intellect.  For that is the thing that they cannot at present bring themselves to believe.  They honestly say to themselves:  “What can he be thinking about, if he is not thinking about the Mistakes of Moses, as discovered by Mr. Miggles of Pudsey, or boldly defying all the terrors of the Inquisition which existed two hundred years ago in Spain?”  We have got to explain somehow that the great mysteries like the Blessed Trinity or the Blessed Sacrament are the starting points for trains of thought far more stimulating, subtle, and even individual, compared with which all that skeptical scratching is as thin, shallow, and dusty as a nasty piece of scandalmongering in a New England village.  Thus, to accept the Logos as a truth is to be in the atmosphere of the absolute, not only with St. John the Evangelist, but with Plato and all the great mystics of the world….To set out to belittle and minimize the Mass, by talking ephemeral back-chat about what it had in common with Mithras or the Mysteries, is to be in altogether a more petty and pedantic mood; not only lower than Catholicism but lower even than Mithraism.

In our day, we are familiar with the “thinking Catholic”.  “Thinking” means that he accepts the modernist consensus without question, and “Catholic” means he insists the Church adjust herself to accommodate his lack of imagination.  Similarly, we all know the “thinking conservative”, the type who only ever thinks about what new concessions we must make to liberalism.  I have pointed out before this asymmetry between the Left and Right, that the intellectual leadership of the Left is expected to be more radical than most Leftist voters, whereas the intellectual leadership of the Right is expected to be more moderate than most Rightist voters.  This is one of our major disadvantages.

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book review: the quantum enigma

The Quantum Enigma: Finding the Hidden Key
by Wolfgang Smith (1995)

Smith makes one of the more promising attempts to connect classical metaphysics to modern physics.  Interestingly, he thinks this reconciliation is easier in quantum than Newtonian physics, the latter being too inhospitably Cartesian.  Quantum mechanics is famously weird.  First, there is the issue of noncommuting operators.  Thus, for instance, if my spin 1/2 particle is in a definite z-axis spin state, it cannot be in a definite x-axis spin state.  A particle being in a definite superposition of eigenstates with respect to at least some observables is inescapable.  Second, there is the “measurement problem”, that if I do measure the x-axis spin, the state vector will “jump” to one eigenstate or the other, and state vector collapse is nondeterministic, nonlocal, and not obviously consistent with the Schroedinger equation.  Regardless of your philosophical commitments, at least one of the above features is probably horrifying to you.  Smith thinks it’s just our false modernist beliefs that make this seem troubling.  He claims that in quantum superposition, we have rediscovered the Aristotelian principle of potency (a suggestion, he notes, also made by Heisenberg), and in state vector collapse we are witnessing “vertical” (i.e. formal) causation.

The early chapters hinge on a distinction Smith draws between the “corporeal” world that we directly perceive and the “physical” world that we measure.  This is reminiscent of the Cartesian/Lockean distinction between subjective, qualitative features and objective, geometrical features of the world, except Smith emphatically locates them both outside our minds yet maintains that they point to real, ontologically distinct aspects of objects.  I admit that I found this discussion difficult to follow, but “primary”/”secondary” quality distinctions have always confused me, and Smith would probably say that I shouldn’t understand what early modern philosophers wrote about them.

Things became much clearer for me in the last chapter.  As I understand it, Smith’s case is as follows.  Quantum particles being indeterminate (in some observables) allows them to act as a material principle (in the Aristotelian as well as modernist sense) that receives determination from its formal principle when incorporated–literally–into a corporeal being.  The distinguishing feature of being a corporeal object is not being macroscopic, but having a substantial form.  Substances (in the Aristotelian sense) have forms and are not subject to quantum superposition–they are the Copenhagen interpretation’s classical measuring devices.  A particle being incorporated into a corporeal object (e.g. by affecting the state of a corporeal measuring device) collapses its wavefunction, at least with respect to those observables that affect the substance’s corporeal state.

This is certainly an elegant move–Aristotelians are looking for a way to find formal causes in modern physics, while physicists are looking for a way to understand a type of causality that at least appears very different from the usual deterministic Schroedinger evolution, and lo, the two needs can be made to answer each other nicely.  Whether it works in detail would be a wonderful topic for further thought; this would no doubt have to deal with the usual Scholastic difficulty of identifying what qualify as substances (“corporeal” objects), but that would be an excellent project for Scholastics looking to re-engage with the corporeal world.

Book review on absolute vs. relational theories of space and time

World Enough and Space-Time:  absolute versus relational theories of space and time
by John Earman (1989)


I loved this book.  For one thing, it’s the first philosophy book I’ve read that announces before the introduction that it will be using the Einstein summation convention.  The debate between Newton and Leibniz lives on among philosophers.  Do objects have spatial relations between them directly or by virtue of being embedded in space?  Is spacetime a substance or an abstraction?  Is there an absolute measure of motion, whether of velocity, acceleration, or rotation?  Professor Earman is refreshingly unafraid to extract ontological claims from physical theories and unimpressed by positivist reduction of the sciences.  In this, he is like the “new philosophers” who invented physics.  It was a pleasure, for instance, to read about Newton entertaining the proper Aristotelian question of whether space is to be regarded as a substance or an accident.  (He concludes it is neither, but a sort of necessary emanation of God.)

All of the famous arguments of the relationist vs. substantivalist debate are reviewed.  Leibniz and Huygens pointed to the Galilean invariance of the laws of nature to argue that all motion is relative.  Newton countered with his “bucket” argument:  one certainly can tell from centrifugal forces whether the water in a bucket is spinning, even though no relations between parts are changing.  Mach suggested that the distant fixed stars somehow pick out what is the inertial frame.  Leibniz thought that the reality of spacetime points would create an intolerable dilemma for God.  If everything in the universe were shifted a meter to the left, nothing would be different, so how could God decide which arrangement to make?  The strength of this argument will depend on how much weight one puts on Leibniz’ principle of sufficient reason.  Kant objected to the relationist thesis that it cannot account for the difference between a left and a right hand–all the internal relations are the same.

Earman clarifies the historical debate a great deal by translating it into the language of differential geometry.  For each spacetime ontology, certain things (distances, proper times, absolute acceleration, absolute movement) are and are not meaningful and unique, so different structures will be present on the spacetime manifold for use when one wants to write dynamical equations in covariant form.  For example, it’s amusing that the relationist’s position is worse in a genuinely 4D theory like relativity where there is a spacetime metric (not just a spatial or time metric) that picks out a unique spacetime connection, thus a unique definition of parallel transport and a unique measure of acceleration.  One actually has more freedom to build relational-friendly theories in a Newtonian-like spacetime.  (Newtonian physics requires the connection to be given.)

In Earman’s telling, the substantivalist’s case is consistently stronger than the relationists, until the last chapter where he somewhat reverses himself.  Earman uses Einstein’s “hole argument” to recast Leibniz’ argument against spacetime points in a form that doesn’t depend on a very questionable model of divine decision making.  Einstein was concerned that his field equations would not make unique predictions for the evolution of the metric.  The issue is not that matter distribution is insufficient to predict the spacetime.  (Spacetime has its own degrees of freedom corresponding to gravitational waves.)  That’s not a problem for determinism.  The problem is that the field equations are generally covariant, and a diffeomorphism of a solution is also a solution.  One could have two solutions related by a diffeomorphism that is the identity before a given time but different afterwards, and the theory cannot distinguish and predict one solution rather than the other.  Earman’s argument is not that this is wrong because philosophy somehow knows determinism to be true, but that philosophy should not be able to say a priori that determinism is false.  Hearing this argument, one is tempted to respond “So what?”  These “two solutions” are just the same physical solution in two different coordinate systems.  But Earman asks us to think in terms of active rather than passive diffeomorphisms:  moving events around to different spacetime points rather than changing coordinates.  My mind rebels against this:  how, absent some absolute background which general relativity doesn’t have, can one distinguish what one has done from a coordinate transformation?  But I think that’s Earman’s point.  If spacetime points had their own distinct existence independent of events on them, then we could label them (“A”, “B”, …) and it would be meaningful to say that our diffeomorphism had actually changed the system.  That most of us just assume that solutions related by diffeomorphism (members of a “Leibniz equivalence class” as Earman calls them) are physically the same shows an underlying relationism, an anti-realism with respect to spacetime points, in our thinking, although we probably are still substantivalists about spacetime in some deeper sense.

Cross-post: what is science?

The following are reflections based on my years teaching introductory astronomy for non-science majors.  Few of my students take the class out of personal interest.  It fulfills a natural sciences general education requirement and sounds less scary than geology or chemistry.  Thus, the ultimate purpose of the class is to expose students to the scientific enterprise, so I put a lot of thought into the impression of science I’m giving them.  When I speak of “science” below, I will be using the word in its modern rather than its classical sense, according to which biology and sociology are sciences while philosophy and history are not.

Survey course textbooks in the branches of science usually include some discussion of the general nature of science.  Anxious to emphasize science’s quality as a process rather than a fixed body of knowledge, they often hold up the “scientific method” as the essence of science.  This, however, has disadvantages.  For one, actual science rarely follows the model given in these books.  More importantly, the scientific method is itself given no real justification, and the limits of its usefulness are left unclear.  What makes this problem pressing is that students may believe, and textbooks may even state, that the scientific method involves assumptions about the world and excludes a priori certain kinds of explanation, as for instance when scientific explanations are contrasted with assertions of miraculous or animistic spiritual causality.  The impression is given that science is at least methodologically naturalist, that when thinking scientifically we must pretend to be atheists.  This, I emphasize, is not a problem for religion; it’s a problem for science.  To tie oneself from the beginning to very questionable metaphysical assumptions threatens the credibility of the whole enterprise.

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Why is radioactive decay a problem?

Radioactive decay is sometimes cited as a counterexample to the law of causality, but I don’t think there is a problem.  It’s not quantum mechanics that tells you decays happen without cause; it’s quantum mechanics plus some crazy extra assumption (or, as we’ll see, quantum mechanics minus some crazy assumption).

I gather that people are bothered by two things.  1) Lack of an outside agent to trigger the decay.  2) That the decay happens abruptly, and there’s no reason for it to happen now as opposed to later.

Why would one object to the glib answer to #1 that beta decays, for example, are caused by the weak nuclear force?  Mathematically, the reason particles decay is because free particle states are no longer eigenstates of the Hamiltonian once one adds interaction terms, and the interaction Hamiltonian is taken to be a manifestation of the weak force.  One could say that the glib answer is guilty of objectifying a term in an equation and thus violates my “abstractions are not causes” rule.  When I say “weak interaction”, the objection continues, I must really refer to non-virtual W and Z bosons coming in from outside the system, which is not what I mean here.  However, this objection itself rests on an assumption that free particle eigenstates are what are really real, and I think this dubious, precisely because it leaves pieces of the theory with unclear ontological ground.  In fact, I affirm my ignorance; I frame no hypotheses.  I only say that the whole Hamiltonian has some ontological ground(s), and so the drift of the state vector from a pure particle state to some superposition has some cause.  (Not knowing the ultimate actors, one must fall back on philosophical arguments as to whether these actors are altered without cause, whether they are self-“moving”, and whatever else.  The description given by the standard model of particle physics can’t help you with that.)

But what about the arbitrariness of when it happens?  Note that this is only a problem for very strong causality claims, like Leibnitz’ Principle of Sufficient Reason.  Lots of perfectly good theories of causality allow for probabilistic action.  “All x have a cause” doesn’t necessarily mean that everything about how and when the cause operates is predetermined.  (I would think most scholastics would be uncomfortable with a claim of such wholesale determinism.)  In any case, even the strongest causality principle is not threatened by particle decay as actually described by the time dependent perturbation theory of quantum mechanics (from which decay rate calculations come), because this description actually doesn’t have any abruptness or discontinuity in it.  What i\hbar\partial_t |\Psi> = \hat{H}|\Psi> actually gives is a continuous drift.  Now, an experimental apparatus like a geiger counter will of course go off at a discrete time, and how we understand that goes into the contentious matter of the interpretation of quantum mechanics.  When playing the game of “quantum mechanics says”, one should use the one interpretation that does not posit a violation of QM on macroscopic scales:  the many-worlds interpretation.  In this model, the state vector continuously and deterministically diffuses through all possible worlds (driven by the full Hamiltonian with interaction, or rather whatever grounds this).  We are one such world, where the decay is measured at such-and-such particular time, but the full state vector is a combination of this and many other possibilities.  Interference terms between “worlds” are destroyed by a process called “decoherence”, which is actually the effect of a third piece of the Hamiltonian, that due to the background environment (including measuring device), so decoherence is definitely a causal event.  Scholastics are always being accused of believing in “spooky” hidden variables as a way to save their belief in causality, but they could just as well accuse their opponents of believing in “spooky” stochastic hidden variables or “spooky” wavefunction collapse.

In defense of eternity

Presentism seems to be popular among some Christian philosophers, William Lane Craig being the most prominent.  Allow me to defend the “block” view of time that the past and future really exist.

Objection to the idea that the past doesn’t exist

There are purely philosophical considerations that are, I believe, decisive on their own.  If the past is not real, there is no ontological ground upon which statements about the past can be true or false.  Piety toward ancestors would be meaningless.  No one could be responsible for past actions, but only present memories or expectations.  A totally forgotten crime really never happened.

Objection to the idea of a “flow” of time

The idea of a “flow” of time is ill-defined, because there is nothing with respect to which time could be said to flow.

Objection to abandoning the doctrine of God’s eternity

Abandoning a four-dimensional view of time means rejecting the doctrine of classical theology that God is atemporal.  If God exists in time, His knowledge must include A-series type propositions and thus must be time-dependent, which throws other classical divine attributes into question.  It also rules out the Boethian solution to the problem of divine foreknowledge and free will.  If God only sees the present but knows the future, determinism must be true.  Being a compatibilist, this doesn’t bother me much, but I expect it would bother many of you.

Objection to an ontologically preferred slicing of spacetime

Finally, there is the problem of positing a privileged foliation of spacetime.  The issue is not just that presentism must assume the existence of an absolute reference frame of which the laws of physics are ignorant, although that in itself is a strong mark against it.  The problem is rejecting the great philosophical insight of special relativity, that the whole idea of an absolute standard of simultaneity across all space was never part of our core intuition of the essence of time; it was always unneeded metaphysical baggage.

The core intuition of time is connected to causality:  the past influences the present (i.e. we remember it), and the present influences the future.  Relativity preserves this, in that for any two events all frames will agree on whether or not one event is in the other’s past light cone.  If two events cannot influence each other, common sense should tell us that they share no temporal relationship, and indeed they don’t.  Different frames will disagree about which of two spacelike-separated events happen first, but our real sense of time is time along a single timelike worldline (indeed most of the time philosophers think of time they’re imagining its passage along a single consciousness).  The reason we accepted the idea of absolute time is because we thought we needed it to make any sense of the dimension of time, but it turns out this isn’t true.  Recognizing this is a philosophical advance as well as a scientific one.

Extracting ontology from scientific theories is hazardous, but refusing to try–dismissing science as merely empirical as if anyone would devote time to it if we didn’t think we were pursuing the truth about things–is crazy.  Why not take light cone structure to reveal the truth about temporal relations between events, as it seems to?  There would be some weird consequences.  Strictly speaking, what happens on Alpha Centauri (4 lt yr away) the day after the light that just reached us was emitted is not yet in our past.  However, there is something close to a common rest frame between us, so a common solar system-Alpha Centauri time slicing of spacetime can be a useful construct.  Another example is that no even that occurs inside a black hole billions of years old is ever in our past (assuming we never fall into said black hole).  These ideas may take some getting used to, but I don’t see why they must be wrong.

Substances existing in time

One worthwhile objection is that, if a person thinks four-dimensionally, he will be led to the conclusion that his current body–himself as he is right now–is actually only a piece–an infinitesimal piece–of his 4D block body, just as his left half is only a piece of his body and not a whole.  However, we experience ourselves at each given time as being complete.  “Me now” is a very different thing than “my left half”.  The former has beliefs, responsibilities, etc, while the latter does not.  Indeed, this intratemporal completeness must indicate something profound, but I think it tells us something about substances (using this word, as usual, in the Aristotelian way) and how they relate to time rather than something about time per se.  It does seem that a true substance always has an overall state, and this state is a function of proper time along its worldline but not spatial location within the substance (or else it wouldn’t be an overall state).  This is presumably what makes absolute time theories credible–my body does have a frame (and I wouldn’t remain a substance for long if different parts of me were moving at relativistic speeds with respect to each other) and this is important for its persistence as a unitary entity.

Smart people problems: a philosophy of ignorance

Richard Feynman concludes his second volume of memoirs, What do you care what other people think?, with a short essay titled “The Value of Science”.  Among the blessings of science, according to this great practitioner of it, is that it teaches us to be comfortable with doubt, with uncertainty, with admitted ignorance, so that we resist the urge to prematurely close investigation.  Carlo Rovelli, one of the inventors of loop quantum gravity, has recently made a similar claim.  Whenever I read these things, I’m amused at how bad the very intelligent are at imagining the perspective of ordinary people.  I know what I’m talking about, both because of my own cognitive limitations and my time spent teaching lots of students who probably shouldn’t have sunk their money into college at all.

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On natural law: desires and goods

This is the second of a four-part series on natural law ethics.  The first part can be found here.


Man is an animal, and like all animals is subject to cravings and urges whose satisfaction brings pleasure and whose frustration brings discomfort.  It is the mark of a nonrational urge that its aim is a subjective state of satisfaction rather than an objective state of affairs.  An irrational animal eats to satisfy hunger, and it congregates with its fellows for the comfort of being part of the herd.  An outside observer can identify objective functions served by these urges, how they keep the animal alive and contribute to the excellence proper to its species.  The animal itself, if it is irrational, cannot achieve the mental separation from its own immanent compulsions to take this outside view.  For small decisions–like the decision to have a snack or watch a television show–humans too are often content to gratify their urges.  For important things, though, we demand motives of another sort.

Man is not just an animal, but also a person.  To be a person means that one is not locked in immanence; one can take an outside view even when one’s own impulses are in play.  In addition to being driven by urges, we can be motivated by reasons.  For rational actions, the ultimate end is not subjective satisfation, but some objective state of affairs regarded as good.  Let us call these ends–objective states of affairs regarded as valuable in themselves–as “goods”.  Because we act to preserve goods, rather than just satisfy urges, we are more than just very clever animals.  We hear the claims of objective value; this is our special dignity as persons.

Usually, cravings and goods are not antagonistic motives.  Goods serve not to frustrate cravings, but to enoble them by showing how any given craving is ordered to an objective good.  Our satisfaction of this desire is “rationalized”, not in the common sense of that word as “given a spurious excuse” but in its literal sense.  The desire is elevated to rational life; it becomes meaningful as the bodily apprehension of a real good.  Mind and body are harmonized.  Our natural capabilities as humans also acquire meaning–when we identify what good a capability is ordered toward serving, we say that we have found that capability’s function.

Some examples may help.  We all know the desire to believe things that comfort us–that we are safe, valued, loved.  However, there is also a great good in knowing the truth and comporting oneself to it, even if the truth happens to be distressing.  Our sensory organs and our intellect are intrinsically ordered toward truth–it’s their function.  Notice here that intrinsic function can be something different from adaptive value.  No doubt it was the ability to evade predators and capture prey, or something like that, that selected for these abilities.  Nevertheless, their function is to truth.  No one doubts that truth–at least about important things–is good in itself, and acquiring this good is simply what the senses and intellect do.  To know the truth would be for them to be doing their basic activity fully and without hindrance. In the bodily order, there are physical pleasures;  they are related to but distinct from the good of health.  In the interpersonal order, we crave the feeling of being loved; this is related to but distinct from the good of really being loved and the good of true intimacy.  In the social order, there is the comfort of the crowd; this is distinct from but usually related to the good of moral community.

For each good, there is a similacrum whereby one can choose to separate the good from its accompanying pleasures and seek only the latter.  To do so is to degrade oneself, to descend into the subpersonal level of immanence, to forsake truth.  All forms of self-deception are degrading in this way.  So, to a lesser extent, is gluttony, attending to the body as a nexus of pleasures rather than goods.  Most pitiable of all are counterfeit interpersonal pleasures.  Prostitution is a base substitute for the marital bond, stripping the conjugal embrace of it’s personal dimension by paying a woman to pretend to be one’s wife.  I once saw a news documentary on a service in Japan whereby lonely old men could hire a group of actors to pretend to be their family for a day.  I thought it was the saddest thing I’d ever seen.  What a great failure it is of that society that there seem to be so many people living without the genuine good of family love.

The list of natural goods doesn’t itself provide us with the first principles of practical reasoning.  These are given by the two great commandments:  to love God with all one’s heart, mind and soul, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  What natural goods do is to tell us what it means to love one’s neighbor and what it means to love oneself.  We love them by promoting what is good for them.  Of all the natural functions identified by natural lawyers, the most noble are those identified as serving the good of other people.  These functions identify humanity as being “designed” for love.  Hence the special attention natural law gives to man’s reproductive capacities.  Most of our bodily features are ordered to our own good, but masculinity and femininity are ordered to serving another.  Every difference between men and women points to a way that each is called to promote the good of child or spouse.  It is obviously not for their own good, individualistically conceived, that women have breasts, but for their childrens’.  (We natural law advocates really like tits.  They’re such obvious examples of this kind of thing.)

One might object that this perception of natural goods is really just a projection of the human mind, rather than a real feature of nature.  This objection fails to recognize that the human mind is itself a part of human nature, so that if our intellects are apt to assign a particular meaning to certain biological facts, this is itself a fact of human nature.  The accusation of projection is only meaningful when the subject and object are different.  It makes sense to say that “humans find worms disgusting” is a fact about human nature rather than worm nature and should be considered irrelevant to the study of worms.  That human reason discerns gender differences as being ordered to family and reproduction is not extraneous in this way.

A more serious objection is that our understanding of human goods and functions might just be cultural artifacts. After all, we do see nontrivial differences in mores and ethical beliefs between cultures.  The response to this objection must be more subtle, because it does point to an important aspect of social life.  Our recognition of human nature is mediated by our culture.  It’s not simply that some parts of morality (the natural law part) are given directly by nature while some other unrelated parts (“mere” custom) are set by the culture.  If it were that simple, natural lawyers wouldn’t have to care about the culture.   Nor can we settle for the cultural relativism of many anthropologists, according to which there are certain universal tasks that any collection of humans must perform to survive multiple generations (this being the “natural” part) but that how these tasks are fulfilled (e.g. children raised by parents or by the tribe as a whole) are cultural/historical fabrications about which nothing else can be said, at least on the level of universal human nature.  An advocate of natural law reads a thick account of human flourishing from the data of human nature, and not every arrangement that enables social survival will also be found to promote integral personal excellence.

I wish to avoid the error, common among natural law ethicists, of trying to prove too much at an overly abstract level.  There’s no need to claim that my culture has a complete list of human goods or that it has a fully adequate understanding of any of them.  In fact, I will be arguing later (in the final part of this series) we usually don’t understand the natural meanings of our acts in their full depth, and that this is an important part of the natural law understanding of the human condition.  Nor is it true that humanity has never posited false goods.  Liberalism itself could be said to be positing a new fundamental human good, one unrecognized as such by all past civilizations, namely personal autonomy–a sort of super-good that overrides all others.  Since I reject this elevation of autonomy, I cannot argue in general that anything ever believed to be a human good must really be one.

How does one tell true goods from false ones.  I believe that children are a true good and autonomy a false good, but how can I be sure of this?  There are several clear indicators.  First, there is the consensus of all mankind; every people except our own has always regarded descendants as a blessing, and everyone but the perverse West has regarded individualism as a social disease.  Second, there is consistency with the great commandments.  True human goods give us ways of loving God, self, and neighbor, and while it is always possible to pursue a genuine good illicitly, i.e. in a way incompatible with these loves, no genuine good involves rejecting the commandment by its very nature.  Having children with one’s spouse is an expression of and opportunity for love of neighbor.  Autonomy, on the other hand, involves by its very nature a rejection of God’s rightful sovereignty.  Third, there is the consistency between goods.  Since human nature is presumed to be intelligible, no true good should intrinsically contradict another one, although, again, accidents of circumstance may force us to choose between them.  So, for example, a man must in practice often sacrifice many true goods for his children, but having children doesn’t intrinsically preclude any other good.  Autonomy, on the other hand, intrinsically requires an at least partial rejection of the good of knowing the truth and the good of living in community.  Both truth and community limit one’s ability to posit one’s own conception of the Good in complete independence of an objective order of being and of other people.  Fourth, there is objectivity; as we have said, the point of natural goods is that they emancipate us from our own point of view.  The claim of autonomous man to dictate all value from his own will makes it impossible for him to escape from himself, just as an emperor who conquered the whole world would have no way to visit a foreign country.  Finally, there is the consideration of function:  a true good involves the perfect activity of some natural human function.  Begetting and raising children is the execution of many natural functions (functions that would otherwise have no natural meaning at all).  Here the defender of autonomy might seem to have a leg to stand on.  Surely the autonomous positing of meaning is the highest execution of our faculty of choice?  In fact it is not.  Conversion and martyrdom are the highest examples of free choice, and these are authentic but not autonomous.  In them, a person freely affirms what is recognized as an objective supreme Good. All other rational choices do this same thing, if to a lesser degree.  Positing a meaning of life as a naked act of will would be something much different–a perverse form of choice detached from the larger context of human goods.  (In fact, most such attempts to define the good for oneself just involve delivering oneself over to subrational impulses.  It could hardly be any other way.  Man cannot really posit goods; he can only recognize them.  If he discards these preexisting goods and looks inside himself for another principle of action, he will find nothing but his pre-rational cravings.)

From the above, one can see that there are rational criteria for distinguishing true from false natural goods.  One can easily convince oneself that the traditionally recognized ones show all the marks of being genuine.

The best that science can do–cross-post

Can a materialist believe in the theory of evolution?  I doubt it.

Back when I was in junior high and high school, I remember being given flow chart-style expositions of what textbooks call “the scientific method”.  It went something like this:  1) ask a question; 2) formulate a hypothesis; 3) do an experiment; 4) if your hypothesis is verified, it gets promoted to a “theory”; 5) keep doing tests; 6) eventually, the “theory” gets bumped up to being a “law”.  There are certainly criticisms that could be made of this.  Flow charts always do some violence to what is fundamentally a creative process.  The “hypothesis” stage is often unnecessary for science fair-type projects–often a student would (and logically should) remain agnostic about the outcome of his experiment until the data is in, but his teacher forces him to “hypothesize” some answer in deference to “the scientific method”.  A decade as a research scientist and I still don’t know what the difference between a “theory” and a “law” is supposed to be.  But, given that the point is to introduce junior high kids to scientific ways of thinking, the standard exposition isn’t bad.

One thing that’s good about it is that it gets across the idea that scientific explanations have varying degrees of certainty.  “Science” doesn’t always speak with the same assurance.  If you don’t believe in blackbody radiation, you’re crazy.  If you don’t believe in dark matter, the evidence right now weighs against you, but your opinion is respectable, and I wouldn’t be shocked if it turned out to be right.  If you think string theory is bunk, you are (I suspect) in agreement with a silent majority of physicists.

So I started thinking–how far does scientific certainty go?  There’s a school of thought that says that natural sciences never achieve real certainty:  every theory is just one experiment away from disproof.  So, for example, the 1/r^2 laws for electricity (Colomb) and gravity (Newton) have been very well tested.  Still, that gives no certainty that a slightly more accurate measurement wouldn’t find deviations.  And, in fact, we do predict and observe slight deviations due to QED and general relativity, respectively.  I expect that someday deviations from these theories will also be found, when we can test extreme enough conditions at high enough accuracy.

But not all scientific theories present themelves as exact and fundamental in this way.  Consider the following three theories:  1) the connection between statistical mechanics and thermodynamics; 2) evolution by random genetic variation and natural selection; 3) the existence of souls of animals.  The first is due to Boltzmann, Maxwell, and Planck; the second to Darwin; the third to Aristotle.  I think it is flatly impossible–inconcievable–that any of these three theories could be disproved by any future observation.  As soon as you understand these theories, you realize that they must be true; the only logically contingent question is whether the circumstances for their application are ever actually realized (and these questions have obviously affirmative answers).

Not only does the process of natural selection not tax our credulity; we realize that, assuming there are heritable traits and that some traits give one a leg up in the reproductive race (and who could doubt either claim?), natural selection will happen, given only enough generations.  It would take divine intervention to stop it from happening.  It doesn’t matter if we don’t know exactly how mutations happen or how a given adaptive trait functions.  The theory is independent of these details.

Similarly, it could be that we have much to learn about the particles that make up atoms, but none of that can affect the laws of statistical mechanics.  The identification of entropy with a multiplicity of microstates and of temperature with entropy’s energy derivative (and, for a gas, with the average kinetic energy) are permanant gains in knowledge.  They have to do, not with unexplained mathematical rules, but with identifying what things (entropy, temperature) fundamentally are.  When one understands what entropy is, one sees that of course it will never decrease for a closed system.  The most basically questionable part of thermodynamics is the first law, because it depends on energy conservation, a presumed fundamental law of nature of whose veracity we can never really be certain.  (It’s one of those permanantly-one-experiment-from-disproof laws.)

Then there’s Aristotle’s claim that living beings have substantial forms.  Moderns scoff at this “unscientific” idea, but of course it’s used in every page of every medical textbook in existence.  We assume that things like substantial unity (that we can identify what is and isn’t part of the organism), function (ask your doctor what the function of the liver is, and see if he chides you for asking an unscientific question), and identity through material change will apply to living things, and we are not disappointed.  Zoologists and paleantologists make predictions based on the assumption that animals are self-moving, and that they will act for their own preservation and propagation, and these predictions are confirmed.  Substantial unity–the “soul”–is certainly scientific.  It may not be just scientific–it is also ontological–but it’s not less than scientific, because the scientists could never do without it.

Evolution, thermodynamics, and the soul are certain knowledge because they are formal knowledge.  They have to do with patterns that we recognize, and as such they have a real intelligibility that material knowledge–e.g. knowledge of the fundamental laws of the matter that makes us up–lacks.  To one who apprehends that he has a soul–that he is a unity of drive, intelligence, and action–it wouldn’t make sense to be told that scientists have done some very careful tests of the cells in his body or of his psychological states, and they have learned that he actually has no principle of unity, that “he” is nothing but an arbitrarily identified aggregate of matter.  Whatever these scientists have been doing, they could only have been learning more about the matter that incarnates the vital pattern he calls himself.  The existence of the pattern is not open to doubt once one has apprehended it.

We all realize that this idea of the soul is philosophically tinged.  We expect to have to defend it from the empiricists and materialists.  “What part of the body is the ‘soul’ in?” they jibe, and we Aristotelians roll are eyes and answer back something like “What part of the statue is the ‘shape’ in?  What pigment in the painting is the ‘pattern’made of?”  The funny thing is that all other definitive scientific theories are in the same boat.  If he really refuses to believe anything he can’t touch or see, the materialist should not believe in natural selection.  If we “zoom in” to the life story of any individual organism, natural selection disappears.  It’s not some kind of magical force that smites the unfit.  Any given animal that died before reproducing was killed by something else–hunger, disease, predators, etc.  No particular animal died because of natural selection, just as no particular cell in your body houses your soul.  Substantial forms and evolution are in the same boat.  Similarly, if one “zooms in” to a single atom or molecule, the concepts of entropy, temperature, and pressure become meaningless.

It would seem that mid-twentieth century physics’ reductionist turn was at least partly mistaken.  Vocal reductionists like Stephen Weinberg made high-energy physics–fundamental laws about elementary particles–the measure of all knowledge.  If I’m right, one can only have real and certain knowledge to the extent that one’s theory conceptually divorces itself from these fundamental laws.  Statistical mechanics works by throwing away everything but energy and multiplicity.  Evolution works by throwing away everything but heritability and adaptivity.  Aristotelian biology (i.e. anatomy and physiology) works by cataloging form and discarding matter.  (Thinking themselves materialists, biologists like to say that they “turn over” the basic properties of the matter in living beings to the chemists and physicists, but the fact that they can “turn over” this subject and continue on their way without trouble shows that it is actually formal causality that they’re dealing with.)

Hodson and Busseri (2012): first thoughts


1)  Nice of them to insist that social conservatism and racism are theoretically distinct phenomena.

2) Sure, there’s a correlation between our beliefs and stupidity, but how lopsided are the smart and dumb populations?  From the paper:

When the effects are expressed as a binomial effect size
display, the implications are compelling: In the BCS, 62% of
boys and 65% of girls whose level of intelligence was below the
median at age 10 expressed above-median levels of racism during
adulthood. Conversely, only 35% to 38% of the children
with above-median levels of intelligence exhibited racist attitudes
as adults. Keiller’s (2010) cross-sectional data revealed a
similarly impressive binomial effect: Sixty-eight percent of
individuals whose abstract-reasoning scores were below the
median scored above the median on measures of antihomosexual

So, if you know someone is smart, there’s a better than 50-50 chance he’s a liberal, but it’s not such a big chance that you could take it for granted.  If 35% of smart people are conservative, that would be enough to debunk the liberal prejudice about us.

(Of course, it would be nice to get more information here.  It could be, for example, that super-smart people are monolithically liberal, or that my beliefs–the extreme Right-end–are entirely limited to the brick-stupid.  Liberals would no doubt be gratified to learn such things, but let’s wait and see if we can track down the data.)

3) They double down on the “seeing things from other peoples’ perspectives is cognitively hard” line:

In a report of a recent American study, Keiller (2010) argued
that the capacity for abstract (as opposed to concrete) thinking
should facilitate comprehension of other people and the
complex mental processing required for the interpretation of
relatively novel information (i.e., the type of information
encountered during intergroup contact). For instance, adopting
another person’s perspective requires advanced cognitive
processing, abstraction, and interpretation, particularly when
the target is an out-group member (and thus “different”).
Given that perspective taking reduces prejudice (Hodson,
Choma, & Costello, 2009), stronger mental capabilities may
facilitate smoother intergroup interactions.

As I said before, this is just silly.  It takes no brains at all to think about things from another person’s perspective, so long as that perspective consists of nothing more complicated than interests and feelings.  Let’s give it a shot.  “Hey, if I wanted to have sex with men, wouldn’t it be great if everybody approved and I could indulge myself?”  Wow, that was really hard, right?

Being utilitarians, though, liberals think that seeing things from other peoples’ perspectives so that you can impartially weigh happiness and harm, is simply all there is to morality.  They can’t imagine that anyone does practical reasoning any other way.  So if I have beliefs about the language of the body and the telos of sex I should count that as a perspective among many–a subjective preference, really–that, if I’m smart enough, I’ll overcome and defer to others’ preferences.  But of course this is not how nonliberals think.  The perspective of natural law isn’t the perspective of any particular subject; it’s objective (a “view from nowhere”) or it’s nothing.  If I believe I have an objective view, than the raw cognitive ability to appropriate more varied subjective views isn’t going to change my conclusions.  I’ll just end up thinking “isn’t it a shame that justice and the truth prevent me from assuaging some peoples’ feelings?”

It must be a wonder to liberals that the intelligence-prejudice anticorrelation isn’t actually much stronger.  After all, for all of their talk about “complexity”, they must know that moral reasoning as they recognize it is not very complicated or subtle.  And as they see it, if someone doesn’t accept their moral reasoning, it can only be because we weren’t smart enough to understand it.  Which means we really must be spectacularly stupid.  Given how things must seem to them, they really are remarkably polite and respectful to us.