Did you really think the Enlightenment would spare you, science?

Steven Pinker is vexed at the hostility postmodernism-imbibing humanities scholars hold for science.  He makes a number of good points.  Thomas Kuhn has been an extremely pernicious influence on popular scientific epistemology.  It is true that postmodernists unfairly blame science and modernity for evils (and pseudo-evils of their creation) that are as old as humanity.  Pinker thinks these humanities professors are betraying the Enlightenment, but I think this is backwards.  The postmodernist attack on science is just the next, purer, more radical phase of the Enlightenment.  Of course, this new batch of Enlightened condemn their predecessors, but parricide is standard operating procedure for the Enlightened, so we shouldn’t read much into that.

Everything becomes clearer when one drops the misconception that science is somehow connected to Enlightenment.  The scientific revolution was a century old and its astronomical achievements accomplished (by Christians) before the Enlightenment attack on Christianity began.  In other words, science was part of the pre-Enlightenment world.  And that is why the Enlightened condemn science for sins that are universal to humanity, not because scientific civilization is different from what came before, but because it is not different.  Science is offensive to the Enlightenment for the same reason that religion is, because both are based on the conviction that mankind must conform itself to an external truth, which contradicts Enlightenment’s promise of total liberation.  Even when science promises mastery of nature, she first demands the mind submit itself with full abasement to reality.

The Enlightenment would sometimes use science as a stick to beat Christianity with, but its main grievances were political.  Christianity was said to be intolerant, demanding to be recognized as the one truth, and a friend of oppression, both because of its otherworldly focus and its presumption that there is a reason for existing arrangements (since God permits them) and hence a presumptive legitimacy of the status quo.  We must not pretend that the Enlightened objected only to a cartoon version of bloodthirsty medieval Christian fanatics.  The great Enlightenment attack was a century after the Treaty of Westphalia, and today’s Enlightened hate thoroughly neutered American Evangelicals with the same passion that their predecessors hated European Catholics.  But science is as guilty as Christianity of these broader political charges.  She too claims unique access to truth and demands the state accept her judgements on which drugs are safe, what children should be taught about the natural world, etc.  She too offends against the zeal for social justice simply by being interested in something else.  As much as religion, she assumes the rationality of the world and leads one to guess that existing arrangements have been optimized by natural selection and possess some rationality.

It’s easy to misunderstand the above, to imagine I have said more than I have.  I do not claim that there are no differences between science and religion, or that any particular religion is fully compatible with modern science, or that science is or was dependent on religion.  Only that the two are members of common family, while the Enlightenment is something sui generis and hostile to both.  One may grant that Sunni and Shia Islam are incompatible and even that their differences are quite important.  Nevertheless, a Bolshevik is not likely to be impressed with these differences, and the Sunni and Shiite can expect similar treatment from him.  It is notable, is it not, how different are the clashes between science and religion vs. those between science and humanities?  Religious believers may object to particular scientific theories, but post-modernists are usually the only ones to condemn the scientific enterprise itself as somehow corrupt in its essence.

Yellow Peril?

Malcolm Pollack has found a fascinating essay by a weak student in China who went to England and outperformed all the locals.

As bright as he was, he found himself badly outperformed at this new school. When the first year’s final exam came along, he finished second from the bottom. He simply couldn’t keep up with the brilliant students all around him, and so he asked his parents to send him abroad. They did.

The young Mr. Yao ended up in England, where he flourished. There, he scored first nationwide in the high-school math exam, and was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge.

We read:

Three years later, I graduated with first class honors and got a job offer from Goldman’s Fixed Income, Currency and Commodity division, the division founded by my hero Rubin. It seemed like whatever I wished would simply come true. But inside, I feared that one day these glories would pass. After all, not long ago, I was at the bottom of my class in China. And if I could not even catch up with my classmates in a city few people have even heard of, how am I now qualified to go to Cambridge University or Goldman? Have I gotten smarter? Or is it just that British people are stupider than the Chinese?

There are 1.4 billion people in China: almost half again as many as in the United States and Europe combined, with a slightly higher average IQ. Given such a large number of people, and the way distributions at the tails of bell-curves work, it does not take much of an edge in IQ for the number of Chinese at the far-right end of the curve to be far in excess of the numbers in the West.

On the positive side, from the rest of the article, it seems these Chinese geniuses are less susceptible to some of the Western psycho-moralistic gibberish.

I’ve been on the admissions committee of my department’s graduate program for about half a decade.  Each year, we get over a hundred applicants, including many from China:  their transcripts, letters of recommendation, GRE scores, and personal essays.  I’ve got a pretty good base of knowledge to compare Western, Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern physics students.  Here is my take on the Chinese.

Continue reading

Surrendering to the communists and teaching white children to hate themselves: more stuff we mustn’t be discouraged by

Two news items, unrelated except in being “signs of the times”.  Yes, the Vatican is not only surrendering to the Chinese Communists but actually praising godless communist tyranny as the embodiment of Catholics social teaching.  And a public school in Minnesota has replaced academics as its priority with communist indoctrination and the demonization of whites.  It’s easy to get upset and angry over these things.  Yes, the Chinese martyrs have been betrayed, shown up as fools for their loyalty.  Yes, I know sometimes the Church must acquiesce to unsatisfactory arrangements, but heaping praise on these enemies of Christ is just gratuitous.  As for the “All for All” school social justice plan to break the spirits of white children, to teach them to hate themselves and their parents, to emotionally cripple them if possible for life, while it isn’t the greatest atrocity in history, there is a purity of evil intent in it that is hard to match.  (Compare:  when Herod murdered the Holy Innocents, it was a means to the end of preserving his power, not sheer hatred for innocent children.)

It would be understandable to be bothered by these things, but we should resist it.  All the powerful institutions are in the hands of the Enemy.  This is what they do.  It’s what we should expect, and hoping for better grants them too much moral legitimacy.  Just as in those more scientific times of my youth no one got angry about hurricanes, we also must learn to conserve our emotional energies for areas where there is still a contest.  After all, the Vatican’s surrender to the communists was a done deal when John Paul II apologized to them for us being a bunch of capitalist imperialist oppressors, which basically conceded the entire issue.  Even before then, the upshot of the Second Vatican Council was that the Church’s persecutors were right after all, and the martyrs had it coming for being insufficiently ecumenical or socially conscious.  Similarly, negro moral superiority and white moral illegitimacy have been the reigning social consensus for a long time.  No one was allowed to question it; we were just allowed to be somewhat lax about taking it to heart.  Perhaps it’s best that the consequences of this doctrine be brought home to everyone.  For that matter, sin and death are real calamities, but they don’t bother us because we know we’re stuck with them.

Last time I explained why this sort of thing doesn’t bother me anymore, I sensed some suspicion from some readers that I was engaging in self-deluding rationalization.  Indeed, to the extent that we tell ourselves that these things are actually, ultimately for the best, we are lying to ourselves for the purpose of psychological comfort.  No, the fact that communism and freemasonry have basically won is a bad thing.  Vatican II was a bad thing.  The American Revolution was a bad thing.  Adam and Eve’s sin was a very, very bad thing.  To the extent that I’ve failed to acknowledge that, I’ve failed to be honest.  However, it’s perfectly honest and reasonable to save one’s emotional investment for the battles whose outcomes are still in doubt.  That’s the reason for bringing up these past misfortunes.  It’s unfortunate that England was lost to Catholicism and unfortunate that America embraced an anti-Western official ideology, but there’s no sense in getting worked up about either of these facts, because they both happened before I was born.  This is what Larry Auster meant, I think, in his last year when he kept saying about America “It’s their country now.”  That America had become “theirs” was never considered a good thing, but at a certain point, one must acknowledge unchangeable realities and shift one’s focus to those realities that can be changed.  There’s a certain relief in acknowledging defeat and moving on to the next battle.

The tribal Catholic on the value of loyal intellectuals

Professor Grisez, architect of the New Natural Law Theory, died on February 1st.  From a tribal Catholic point of view, the relative merits of this version of natural law theory are of less concern than Grisez’ clear and unwavering loyalty to the Church.  This particularly stands out in the affair over contraception, during which most of the Church’s intellectuals betrayed her and made common cause with the Enemy.  Because tribalism is a matter of will rather than intellect, it allows a great deal of intellectual diversity, and it is notable that some of the most distinguished defenders of the Church during these dark times have made creative departures from orthodox Thomism.  Dietrich von Hildebrand rejected the Thomist framework for ethics altogether but still became a hero to traditionalists.  Grisez was not nearly so radical, but he and the other New Natural Law theorists are addressing a real problem, that there is serious work to be done in getting moral duties from natural teleology–our version of the jump from “is” to “ought”.  A Catholic tribalist might not be convinced that splitting off human goods from an integrated teleology actually helps solve this problem, but he will always distinguish friends who are trying (with perhaps mixed success) to address a real intellectual challenge to the Faith from enemies whose goal is to dilute our religion and to subjugate us to some hostile ideology.  Just as a nation based on blood can allow more ideological diversity than one based on a sacred proposition, tribal Catholics can venture more safely into foreign philosophical waters.

Continue reading

notes to self: possible theories of substance

This is just a list.  I’m not endorsing any of them.

  1. Substantial conventionalism:  The world is divided into property holders (“subjects”, “substances”) and properties, but how one divides the world into subjects (how one coarse grains the world) is a matter of choice.  The cat is black, not black has felininity, but “the cat”, “the left side of the cat”, and “the two cats walking adjacent to each other” are all substances, because they all have properties and are not properties themselves.  At most, one choice of substances may be more useful.
  2. Substantial rarity:  In addition to mere substances-as-subjects, there are also some beings who possess a higher order of intelligible unity, a unity of a sort that their parts or aggregates of them do not possess.  Perhaps living and/or conscious beings.  So, most of the universe is mere “stuff” whose enumeration is arbitrary, but additionally there are organisms whose enumeration is not arbitrary.
  3. Scientific Platonism:  In addition to the above, the non-substantial stuff can organize itself into patterns that approximate to greater or lesser degree certain mathematical structures.  The stuff is considered to be ontologically prior to the patterns it instantiates.  For example, air motion may instantiate longitudinal (sound) waves or vortex tubes.  Boundaries of instantiation of patterns are fuzzy, since in this Platonic view, the stuff and the patterns have independent existence.
  4. Metaphysical atomism:  On the contrary, substances with distinct species and substantial form (clear-cut species boundaries, existence flows through substantial form, all four causes somehow applicable) are all that exist, i.e. these substances, their parts (which are considered ontologically posterior to their wholes), and aggregates of substances.  What others identify as “stuff” clearly has a great deal of intelligibility, which must come from it being substantial, part of a substance, or an aggregate of substances.  This comes in several flavors.
    1. Pluralist holism:  Substances are what ultimately exist, and they are wholes, not parts.  Parts exist only virtually.  Substances are thus identified as the largest (in the sense of composition) intelligible unities.  Our minds can generally recognize substantial forms (although it may not be easy).  This is the first kind of metaphysical atomism the mind embraces, but it soon starts to seem suspicious that substantial unity is usually attributed to objects of human scale rather than much larger or smaller.  This looks like a selection effect.  In response, we can populate substantial unity at all scales or let it cascade to either the smallest or largest.
    2. Monadology:  Substances are made of substances, going up and down to infinity.  The substantial unity of some components will often not be visible to us.
    3. Physical atomism:  The real substances, the ontologically prior beings, are the smallest material constituents out of which everything else is made.  Immaterial souls may also be included as “atoms” in this sense.  So also may fields pervading all space.  This can be combined with scientific Platonism to account for the obvious presence of larger-scale intelligibility.
    4. Panentheism:  There is only one true substance, the universe and everything in it.  The substantial unity of the universe is not obvious, but may be identified with God, or perhaps a wavefunction representing the state of everything.  This may sound crazy, but it’s a natural way for pluralist holism to drift (i.e. to monist holism).


Is brown a color?

An amusing question for those who like to think about primary vs. secondary qualities, an issue that caused a bit of nuisance for astronomers.

The term “brown dwarf” was originally coined by Jill Tarter in 1975 to describe these objects, and there were other suggestions for names, like planetar and substar. But the name “brown dwarf” stuck. And here’s the problem, as described by Jill Tarter, “it was obvious that we needed a color to describe these dwarfs that was between red and black. I proposed brown and Joe (Silk) objected that brown was not a color.”

Brown isn’t a color?!

Not for astronomers. When they consider the color of a star, astronomers are talking about the wavelength of the light being emitted. Stars emit light at various wavelengths, and whatever photons are mostly being emitted are what we see. Yellow stars emit primarily yellow photons, red stars emit mostly red photons, etc. But you can’t have a star emit brown photons because the “color” brown is a de-saturated yellow. Brown dwarfs can’t be brown because it’s impossible to emit brown light. So what color are they?

Saturation is at least an objective feature of the spectrum, having to do with how much of it is spread into other colors.  As the Wikipedia entry on “brown” shows, what appears brown to us also depends on the contrast of neighboring colors.

“Time is greater than space” as an illustration of the intellectual vacuity of today’s clerical culture

Is being a priest a hard job?  Catholic laymen get different impressions, because it can be as hard as one wants it to be.  Priests with initiative find limitless opportunities for projects relevant to their duties and work themselves to exhaustion.  On the other hand, lazy priests will have little to prod them.  Is theology a difficult subject?  As difficult as you want it to be.  There are problems of formidable intricacy and subtlety waiting for those who find them, but if you want to stick with slogans, virtue-signaling, and post-modern nonsense, you can do that instead.

The pro-Francis theologians are entering Sokal hoax territory.  Behold, the new and improved Pontifical Academy for Life.

A reflection on Amoris Laetitia has been posted on the website of the Pontifical Academy for Life in which its author, a new member of the academy, proposes that the term “intrinsically evil” is outdated.

Hypothesizing on the moral theology of Amoris Laetitia and Pope Francis’ principle that “time is greater than space” mentioned in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Professor Gerhard Höver argues that changes in perception, “namely, space and time,” have an “effect on specific theologies, such as the theological view of marriage and the family.”

One might wonder whether anything can be evil if nothing is intrinsically evil.  Things that are accidentally evil are evil in virtue of some combination of their accidents, and if that combination is not intrinsically evil, well, the question “What’s wrong with that?” has to terminate somewhere.  But let’s leave that to the side and just marvel at how our shepherds go around speaking as if Pope Francis’ bit of silly, pretentious, postmodern gibberish “time is greater than space” is some profound insight.

What the hell is “time is greater than space” even supposed to mean?  Deacon Jim Russell gathers Pope Francis’ invocations of this phrase together with relevant context and tries to make sense of them here.  In some contexts, it’s just a warning against short-term thinking.  Usually, though, Francis explains his slogan to mean that “initiating processes” is more important than “controlling spaces”.  At the most generous, one could treat this like a folk proverb such as “the best things come to those who wait” or “birds of a feather flock together”, a bit of folk wisdom pithily expressed and not meant to provide a general principle or even to explain the extent of its own validity.  In emergencies, “space control” can be more important than initiating “processes” that will only bear fruit far in the future, and only provided the immediate space control is successful.  As I said, the slogan “time is greater than space” could at best serve as a reminder that the pursuit of some type of control at the current time is sometimes counterproductive.  However, this slogan lacks the distinct excellence of a proverb; proverbs are memorable and easily understood by everyone, and Francis’ use of language is neither colloquial nor precise.

In general, “time is greater than space” is a false dichotomy.  Processes can’t proceed unless there is some “space” in which they are allowed to operate, and power over social spaces is sought precisely in order to initiate or protect the operation of some “process” that one favors.  This dichotomy is also an inaccurate description of the real disputes.  Traditionalist Catholics don’t object to the neo-modernists’ processes simply for being processes.  They object to them because they judge them to be processes toward the normalization of sin and heresy.  Similarly, one has no trouble finding traditionalists grumbling about Francis or liberal bishops using their power over Catholic spaces to suppress “processes” that traditionalists approve of.  “Space” and “time” in the senses used here are morally neutral in themselves.  What matters is to what ends they are being used.

As usual, Francis doesn’t argue for his silly principle; he just attaches negative but logically unrelated descriptions to those who perform the behavior he doesn’t like.  For example “Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion…”  It might, or it might not.  What if I prioritize maintaining order in a region of space but do so calmly and methodically rather than madly?  What if my priority is not to possess all the spaces of power but just one that is key to my purposes?  Francis seems to be a slave to his mental associations, making it difficult for him to think logically.  It’s the same reason we always see him attributing negative spiritual qualities (e.g. rigidity or pride) to his critics.

“Time is greater than space” is just in every way a mind-bogglingly stupid thing to say.  Yes, I know I’m being rude.  I’m angry that a religious body with a two thousand year theological tradition can be reduced to such flimflam.  We should expect better.