Thursday, March 23, 2017

Mind: The Matrix of the Universe

This very interesting discussion in a post from the Viewpoint archive forms an appropriate sequel to Matter and Mind: What Are They? (3/21/17):

One of the fascinating developments of modern physics has been the creeping suspicion among physicists that what we call "matter" is really a kind of illusion, or perhaps more accurately, an artifact of our perceiving the world on the scale of size that we do. Were we very much tinier than we are matter would disappear in a fog of energy or more startling still, matter would turn out to be nothing more than a manifestation of consciousness.

A recent article in the Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research by G.P.Smetham collates the evidence for the conclusion that the fundamental, irreducible ground of reality is not matter but consciousness. The article is rather long and in places a little technical, but here are some of the highlights:
[A] significant number of respected physicists and philosophers are now converging on the possibility that consciousness is a central feature of reality operating through the quantum ground. The physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, in their important book Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness, are clearly making such a claim regarding the far reaching implications of quantum theory:

"The physical reality of an object depends on how you choose to look at it. Physics had encountered consciousness but did not yet realize it."
"Consciousness and the quantum enigma are not just two mysteries; they are the two mysteries; … Quantum mechanics seems to connect the two."

The majority of the founding fathers [of physics] also came to such a view, a notable exception being Einstein. According to Schrödinger, for instance, "Mind has erected the objective outside world...out of its own stuff."

And Max Planck came to a similar conclusion: "All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force....We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter."

More recently, in an article in the New Scientist Michael Brooks, commenting on quantum entanglement experiments..., tells us that the conclusion reached by the physicists involved is that, "[W]e now have to face the possibility that there is nothing inherently real about the properties of an object that we measure. In other words, measuring those properties is what brings them into existence."

And Vlatko Vedral, quantum researcher at the University of Leeds commented that, "Rather than passively observing it, we in fact create reality."

The headline for the article proclaims that, "To track down a theory of everything, we might have to accept that the universe only exists when we are looking at it...."

The evidence is inexorably stacking up in favour of the view that the ultimate nature of the process of reality is mind-like, or idea-like, as Stapp puts it.
In other words, at the most fundamental level of our physical world "there is no substance, the quantum field is actually 'empty' of substance." Matter turns out to be something like a rainbow. There appears to be an arc of color in the sky, but it's an illusion. Smetham quotes physicist Jonathan Allday:
Now, from a philosophical point of view, this is rather big stuff. Our whole manner of speech ... rather naturally makes us think that there is some stuff or substance on which properties can, in a sense, be glued. It encourages us to imagine taking a particle and removing its properties one by one until we are left with a featureless "thing‟ devoid of properties, made from the essential material that had the properties in the first place. Philosophers have been debating the correctness of such arguments for a long time. Now, it seems, experimental science has come along and shown that, at least at the quantum level, the objects we study have no substance to them independent of their properties.

Because there is no substantiality (and here Allday is using the term "substantiality" to indicate "matter") within quantum field theory the term "particle‟ is dropped and the term "quanta‟ is used, and these are "objects which have properties but are not substances."
Smetham and the physicists he quotes are coming to believe that the universe arose out of a "sea of potentiality" which crystallizes into an actual universe upon being "selected" by a mind, but what sort of mind could perform such a feat? What sort of mind preexisted the universe? Smetham's answer is God, but, he is at pains to make clear, not the God of monotheistic religion. His reasons for his objection to the God of Christianity and other monotheisms strikes me as very weak, but I'll let him state it:
We are now in a position to resuscitate the notion of God after the Hawking and Mlodinow failed assassination attempt. However it must be made clear that the concept of God which can be revived is not that which is conceived of by most Christians....The problem with the notion of God as it is enshrined in Christian doctrine and practice is the large amount of religious and cultural baggage that comes along with it, baggage which in no way could ever logically follow from any resurrected quantum divine principle; significant examples would be the virgin birth and the resurrection, for instance.
If I understand him, Smetham is saying that because quantum theory doesn't actually predict the virgin birth or the resurrection of Jesus, the God believed in by those people who believe in the historicity of these events can't be the God pointed to by quantum theory.

This seems to me to be a non-sequitur. As long as the concept of God believed in by Christians is compatible with the theory and with the God the theory points to, then I don't see the problem. Smetham, though, seems to be partial to Buddhism and is eager to rule out other possibilities. At any rate he continues:
In his book Why There Almost Certainly Is a God Keith Ward gives an account of his "God hypothesis‟ which clearly maps quite snugly on to the Hawking/Mlodinow model [In their new book The Grand Design] in all but one detail [Smetham refers to the Hawking/Mlodinow model, for reasons not important to our purpose, as the HAM-TOE]:

The God hypothesis proposes that there is a consciousness that does not depend upon any material brain, or any material thing at all. In this consciousness all possible worlds exist [subjectively], though only as possible states that may or may not exist [objectively]. The cosmic consciousness can evaluate these possible worlds in terms of their desirability – their beauty or elegance or fecundity, for example. Then, being actual, it can bring about desirable states and enjoy them.

The first part of this metaphysical vision is isomorphic to the HAM-TOE in that it proposes that the universe comes into being as a vast web of potentiality, possible worlds or possible pathways of experience. As we have seen, a logical analysis of the structure of the HAM-TOE clearly shows that this vast maze of cosmic potentiality must be of the nature of consciousness or mind. However, when it comes to specifying the selection mechanism by which a privileged set of these potentialities becomes actual Ward falls back upon the traditional view of the omnipotence of God.

According to Ward's proposal it is God, apparently acting as an independent agent taking the position of external cosmic observer firing quantum beams of approval into the world of potential manifestation, who "selects" which of the possible worlds are "desirable."
Smetham goes on to argue that since human beings are conscious entities they, too, perceive the world and therefore "select" the world that will exist [and bizarrely, the world that existed in the past]. Human agents are, as it were, the senses of God analogous to our sense of sight, hearing, and so on:
In other words the universe uses the perceiving process within the dualistic world of experience in order to explore and experience its own nature. Human beings occupy a central place in this process because they are the universe's agents (leaving aside the issue of beings elsewhere in the universe) in the process of universal self-exploration, self-perfection and self-transcendence; a universal process of self-discovery which modern theologians may wish to call "God."
The idea that God creates the world through His observation of it, or, more precisely, perhaps, His thinking it, is not a completely new idea. George Berkeley (1685-1753) had a similar notion, as did his contemporary Isaac Newton (1643-1727):
Sir Isaac Newton, who suggested that space was the "sensorium of God." In the Opticks Newton wrote:

"…does it not appear from phenomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who in infinite space, as it were in his sensory, sees the things themselves intimately, and thoroughly perceives them, and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to himself: of which things the images only carried through the organs of sense into our little sensoriums, are there seen and beheld by that which in us perceives and thinks."
Smetham closes with a passage that sounds like it could have been written by a contemporary advocate of intelligent design:
[A]t the ground of the process of reality there might be an infinitely potent, innately intelligent awareness which explores its own potentialities through manifesting the "little sensoriums" of all sentient beings. As quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger describes John Wheeler's quantum conclusion:

"…since we are part of the universe, the universe, according to Wheeler, creates itself by observing itself through us."

We are all part of the Grand Designer!
It's ironic that physics, traditionally the most materialistic of all the sciences, should be today coming to the conclusion that matter doesn't exist after all and that the ground of all reality is, in fact, a transcendent Mind.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Religious Liberty Is in Jeopardy

Rod Dreher has written a book he titles The Benedict Option in which he argues that religious liberty, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution contained in the Bill of Rights, is in serious jeopardy in contemporary America. Some have complained that his diagnosis is a bit too overwrought, but I'm not so sure.

Bakers, photographers and florists who, for religious reasons, have balked at helping to celebrate gay unions, are being driven out of business by ruinous, vindictive lawsuits. The sad story of Baronelle Stutzman, a florist sued by two long-time friends and customers because she balked at providing flowers for their wedding even though she recommended other florists who could provide the service, is the tip of a very troubling iceberg.

Academics who espouse certain religious views that until the day before yesterday were considered mainstream would be denied employment at many universities around the country if their religious beliefs were known to their potential employers.

Charles Haynes explains in an article at the Washington Post how the federal government's Commission on Civil Rights has been working to undermine traditional religious liberty protections. Haynes writes:
Nearly 225 years after the ratification of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the cause of conscience protected by the principles of “no establishment” and “free exercise” may be losing support in the minds and hearts of the American people.

Appeals by religious individuals and groups for exemption from government laws and regulations that substantially burden religious practice are increasingly unpopular and controversial. So much so that many in the media have taken to using scare quotes, transforming religious freedom into “religious freedom.” Now the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights appears to be recommending that we make it official: Our first freedom is first no more.

According to a commission report released Sept. 7, “civil rights protections ensuring nondiscrimination, as embodied in the Constitution, laws, and policies, are of preeminent importance in American jurisprudence.”

If we accept this assertion, it means that conflicts between religious freedom and nondiscrimination principles are resolved by denying accommodation for religious conscience — except perhaps in very rare and narrow circumstances.

According to the findings of the commission:

“Religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon those civil rights.”
Haynes cites a commonsense solution to the problem of balancing civil rights and religious liberty rights:
Consider, for example, the bitter conflict over allowing county clerks to opt out of performing same-sex marriages. Last year, Utah passed legislation designed to prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people while simultaneously protecting religious freedom.

A key provision of the Utah law ensures that county clerk offices perform marriages and that a clerk be readily available to marry same-sex couples. A clerk may opt out of performing a same-sex marriage if, and only if, another clerk is available to issue the license and perform the ceremony. Under this balanced approach, same-sex couples are provided the service (without knowing who, if anyone, has opted out in the clerk’s office) and religious conscientious objectors are accommodated.

Unfortunately, the commission’s report does nothing to encourage — and, I would argue, actually discourages — efforts like the one in Utah to find a balance between nondiscrimination and religious freedom.
Wouldn't it be to the benefit of everyone's rights if when someone feels they're being discriminated against for putatively religious reasons to have the court, instead of declaring winners and losers, appoint an arbitrator to work out an accommodation that could be mutually satisfactory and beneficial to all parties? This is what we do in labor disputes, and I don't see any reason why it couldn't be done when constitutional rights conflict. Why, after all, do people feel that someone always has to be punished and possibly ruined because they'd rather not be the florist that provides flowers at a plaintiff's wedding?

Haynes continues:
The title of the commission’s report alone speaks volumes: “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties.” First, the wording suggests that religious freedom is a “civil liberty,” when in truth it is a fundamental, inalienable right protected by the First Amendment. And second, the commission’s report is less about reconciling differences and more about asserting the primacy of nondiscrimination over religious freedom.
Haynes finishes with this bit of wisdom:
It’s time for all sides to reaffirm equality and liberty as twin pillars of the American republic. Authentic peaceful coexistence requires moving from the zero-sum game described in much of the commission’s report to the level playing field required by our constitutional commitment to both nondiscrimination and religious freedom.
There's no reason why we can't have both.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Matter and Mind: What Are They?

Physicist Adam Frank has an interesting essay at Aeon in which he discusses some of the problems quantum physics poses for materialism. Materialism is the view that everything is reducible to matter (and energy), and, of course, if everything is reducible to matter then there's no immaterial mental substance, no mind or soul that's not somehow a product of the material brain. Our physical, material selves are all there is to us.

Materialism, however, bears the burden of several very serious difficulties, including the following three: 1) No one knows what matter is; 2) Some popular interpretations of quantum mechanics seem to entail that matter is just a wave function, a mathematical posit, that has no objective existence; And 3) the most significant feature of minds - consciousness - seems inexplicable on any materialist ontology.

Here are some excerpts from what Frank says about this:
Materialism holds the high ground these days in debates over that most ultimate of scientific questions: the nature of consciousness. When tackling the problem of mind and brain, many prominent researchers advocate for a universe fully reducible to matter. ‘Of course you are nothing but the activity of your neurons,’ they proclaim. That position seems reasonable and sober in light of neuroscience’s advances, with brilliant images of brains lighting up like Christmas trees while test subjects eat apples, watch movies or dream. And aren’t all the underlying physical laws already known?

....In the very public version of the debate over consciousness, those who advocate that understanding the mind might require something other than a ‘nothing but matter’ position are often painted as victims of wishful thinking, imprecise reasoning or, worst of all, an adherence to a mystical ‘woo’.

....There is, however, a significant weakness hiding in the imposing-looking materialist redoubt. It is as simple as it is undeniable: after more than a century of profound explorations into the subatomic world, our best theory for how matter behaves still tells us very little about what matter is. Materialists appeal to physics to explain the mind, but in modern physics the particles that make up a brain remain, in many ways, as mysterious as consciousness itself.

When I was a young physics student I once asked a professor: ‘What’s an electron?’ His answer stunned me. ‘An electron,’ he said, ‘is that to which we attribute the properties of the electron.’ That vague, circular response was a long way from the dream that drove me into physics, a dream of theories that perfectly described reality.

Like almost every student over the past 100 years, I was shocked by quantum mechanics, the physics of the micro-world. In place of a clear vision of little bits of matter that explain all the big things around us, quantum physics gives us a powerful yet seemly paradoxical calculus. With its emphasis on probability waves, essential uncertainties and experimenters disturbing the reality they seek to measure, quantum mechanics made imagining the stuff of the world as classical bits of matter (or miniature billiard balls) all but impossible.

....Some neuroscientists think that they’re being precise and grounded by holding tightly to materialist credentials. Molecular biologists, geneticists, and many other types of researchers – as well as the non-scientist public – have been similarly drawn to materialism’s seeming finality. But this conviction is out of step with what we physicists know about the material world – or rather, what we don’t know.

....if one wants to apply the materialist position to a concept as subtle and profound as consciousness, something more must clearly be asked for. The closer you look, the more it appears that the materialist (or ‘physicalist’) position is not the safe harbor of metaphysical sobriety that many desire.
Indeed, the problem of conscious experience has caused many philosophers, like Thomas Nagel in his book Mind and Cosmos, for instance, to abandon materialism altogether.

Explaining conscious experience, the sensation of red or the taste of sweet, is what philosophers have referred to as the "Hard" problem and it has proven to be intractable on any materialist account. Indeed, it's a mystery on any account. For an explanation of what philosophers mean by this go here (also here and here). Frank adds this:
....Some consciousness researchers see the hard problem as real but inherently unsolvable; others posit a range of options for its account. Those solutions include possibilities that overtly project mind into matter.

Consciousness might, for example, be an example of the emergence of a new entity in the Universe not contained in the laws of particles. There is also the more radical possibility that some rudimentary form of consciousness must be added to the list of things, such as mass or electric charge, that the world is built of. Regardless of the direction ‘more’ might take, the unresolved democracy of quantum interpretations means that our current understanding of matter alone is unlikely to explain the nature of mind. It seems just as likely that the opposite will be the case.
If, as some versions of quantum physics insist, there really is no material entity until we observe it then it would seem that what everything reduces to is not matter, but an observing mind. If that's the case then some form of idealism would seem to be true.

But if mind is the ultimate reality, where did it come from? It didn't evolve since evolution can only act on material entities like molecules of DNA.

Perhaps our minds are derivatives of a universal mind which has generated everything that we perceive and holds everything in being. That may seem bizarre, but it's certainly no more bizarre than the idea that matter is, at bottom, simply an abstract wave function with no objective existence.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Five-Sided Argument

Matthew Continetti at The Free Beacon lays out many of the difficulties that will have to be faced once ISIS is defeated in Iraq and Syria. It would be a mistake, he writes, to think that the problems in the Middle East or even the struggle against Islamic terrorism will be over when ISIS is no longer able to field an army. Here's his lede:
The Islamic Caliphate announced in 2014 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, is approaching the end of its short and terrible life. Iraqi forces, supported by Americans, have reclaimed the eastern half of Mosul and are retaking the western one. Kurdish militias in Syria, also backed by the United States, are homing in on the ISIS capital of Raqqa. Word came this week that a contingent of Marines has been deployed in Syria to position heavy artillery for the fight ahead. "We expect that within a few weeks there will be a siege of the city," a militia spokesman tells Reuters.

ISIS doesn't have a chance. American air and ground forces, working with local proxies, are about to terminate its existence as a state. "Crushed," to paraphrase President Trump. A just—and popular—cause.

But that won't be the end. Recent events suggest that the military defeat of ISIS is just the beginning of a renewed American involvement in Iraq and Syria. And whether the American public and president are prepared for or willing to accept the probable costs of such involvement is unknown. That is reason for concern.

To glimpse the future, look at the city of Manbij in northeast Syria. Humvees and Strykers flying the American flag have appeared there in recent days. The mission? Not to defeat ISIS. Our proxies kicked them out last year. What we are doing in Manbij is something altogether different from a military assault: a "deterrence and reassurance" operation meant to dissuade rival factions from massacring one another. If you can't remember when President Obama or President Trump called for such an operation, that's because they never did.

And there's a twist. One of the factions we are trying to intimidate is none other than the army of Turkey, a NATO member and purported ally. Turkey moved in on Manbij not because of ISIS but because of the Kurds. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish autocrat, opposes one of our Kurdish proxies. He says the YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker's Party, which has conducted an insurgency against his government for decades. Yet the YPG is also the most effective indigenous anti-ISIS force on the ground. We need it to take Raqqa.

Things get even more complicated. Also in Manbij are the Russians, who are helping units of the Syrian army police a group of villages. The Kurds invited them, too, presumably as a separate hedge against Turkey. To keep score: The Americans, the Russians, the Turks, the Kurds, and the Syrians are all converging on an impoverished city in the middle of nowhere that has no strategic importance to the United States.
From about 1950 to 2004 the United States was at war for about six years (in Vietnam). We were accustomed to living at relative peace. Since 2004, however, we have been at constant war, and it looks to many experts like things may continue that way for decades. The Islamic world, or at least a significant chunk of it, will not let the West live in peace. They see Westerners as infidels who must either be converted, subjugated, or killed. As long as we refuse to submit we will have to fight for the day we stop is the day the Islamists win. Yet the Middle East is hopelessly chaotic. Everybody is warring against everybody else in a senseless free-for-all that seems to offer no hope of resolution.

The balance of Continetti's analysis highlights the confused nature of the region and the complex array of combatants and actors. He closes with this:
A contributor to The Weekly Standard likes to tell the following story: Covering the Lebanese civil war in 1983, he visited an outpost of U.S. Marines. They came under sniper fire from one militia. Then another militia started shooting. Then the Syrians joined in. At which point a lance corporal turned to him and said, "Sir, never get involved in a five-sided argument."

Saturday, March 18, 2017


Andrew Sullivan is a writer for New York Magazine who has penned a compelling critique of the newest fad among politically-minded college students - something called intersectionality. He was moved to write on this topic by the reprehensible behavior of Middlebury College students at a lecture given, or attempted to be given, a week or so ago by a scholar named Charles Murray.

Sullivan, who is gay, a survivor of HIV-AIDs, a supporter of President Obama, and a libertarian on most issues, is hardly a "right-wing fanatic" and is considered by some to be one of the most influential writers on American culture and politics alive today.

I say all this so that readers can have a sense of where Sullivan is coming from when he writes about the Middlebury College episode and its tie-in to intersectionality, which he deems to be something of a post-modern religion. He writes:
Here’s the latest in the assault on liberal democracy. It happened more than a week ago, but I cannot get it out of my consciousness. A group of conservative students at Middlebury College in Vermont invited the highly controversial author Charles Murray to speak on campus about his latest book, Coming Apart. His talk was shut down by organized chanting in its original venue, and disrupted when it was shifted to a nearby room and livestreamed. When Murray and his faculty interlocutor, Allison Stanger, then left to go to their car, they were surrounded by a mob, which tried to stop them leaving the campus. Someone in the melee grabbed Stanger by the hair and twisted her neck so badly she had to go to the emergency room (she is still suffering from a concussion). After they escaped, their dinner at a local restaurant was crashed by the same mob, and they had to go out of town to eat.

But what grabbed me was the deeply disturbing 40-minute video of the event, posted on YouTube. It brings the incident to life in a way words cannot. At around the 19-minute mark, the students explained why they shut down the talk, and it helped clarify for me what exactly the meaning of “intersectionality” is.

“Intersectionality” is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power. At least, that’s my best attempt to define it briefly. But watching that video helps show how an otherwise challenging social theory can often operate in practice.

It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.

Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.

It operates as a religion in one other critical dimension: If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of “white supremacy,” you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You can’t reason with heresy. You have to ban it. It will contaminate others’ souls, and wound them irreparably.
There's much more to Sullivan's critique at the link as well as some criticism of Donald Trump at the end that'll warm the hearts of anti-Trumpers. What interested me most, though, was his description of the absolute intolerance and the fascist tactics of at least some of those who embrace the severe doctrines of intersectionality.

Liberal democracy requires the freedom to share ideas. It requires that people be given the opportunity to voice ideas that may be unpopular or even despised and that other people have the opportunity to hear them out, if they so choose.

Many on the left, however, don't seem interested in liberal democracy. They're more interested in emulating the medieval church, banning ideas they hate, rooting out heresy, demanding strict adherence to orthodox dogma, and brooking no dissent.

Liberal democracy also requires a commitment to reason and rational argument, but again many leftists aren't interested in this either. As Sullivan observes, if science fails to support their "smelly little orthodoxies" about race, gender, etc. then so much the worse for science. If they or their ideas can't compete in rational debate their opponents must be shouted down, prevented from speaking, and even violently assaulted.

This is a repudiation of civility and civil discourse. It's a repudiation of the values that have made Western civilization superior to those civilizations in which power is obtained and enforced by physical violence. It's a river that's leading us deep into the heart of darkness.

Sullivan wraps up his essay with this:
This matters, it seems to me, because reason and empirical debate are essential to the functioning of a liberal democracy. We need a common discourse to deliberate. We need facts independent of anyone’s ideology or political side, if we are to survive as a free and democratic society. Trump has surely shown us this. And if a university cannot allow these facts and arguments to be freely engaged, then nowhere is safe. Universities are the sanctuary cities of reason. If reason must be subordinate to ideology even there, our experiment in self-government is over.

Liberal democracy is suffering from a concussion as surely as Allison [Stanger] is.
Unfortunately, liberal democracy is suffering from something far more serious than a concussion. It's suffering from a cancer that's eating away at the values which make it both liberal, in the classic sense, and democratic.

Friday, March 17, 2017

On Saint Patrick's Day

The following is a post I've run on previous St. Patrick's Days and thought I'd run again this year because, I say in all modesty, it's pretty interesting:

Millions of Americans, many of them descendents of Irish immigrants, celebrate their Irish heritage by observing St. Patrick's Day today. We are indebted to Thomas Cahill and his best-selling book How The Irish Saved Civilization for explaining to us why Patrick's is a life worth commemorating. As improbable as his title may sound, Cahill weaves a fascinating and compelling tale of how the Irish in general, and Patrick and his spiritual heirs in particular, served as a tenuous but crucial cultural bridge from the classical world to the medieval age and, by so doing, made Western civilization possible.

Born a Roman citizen in 390 A.D., Patrick had been kidnapped as a boy of sixteen from his home on the coast of Britain and taken by Irish barbarians to Ireland. There he languished in slavery until he was able to escape six years later. Upon his homecoming he became a Christian, studied for the priesthood, and eventually returned to Ireland where he would spend the rest of his life laboring to persuade the Irish to accept the Gospel and to abolish slavery. Patrick was the first person in history, in fact, to speak out unequivocally against slavery and, according to Cahill, the last person to do so until the 17th century.

Meanwhile, Roman control of Europe had begun to collapse. Rome was sacked by Alaric in 410 A.D. and barbarians were sweeping across the continent, forcing the Romans back to Italy, and plunging Europe into the Dark Ages. Throughout the continent, unwashed, illiterate hordes descended on the once grand Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books. Learning ground to a halt and the literary heritage of the classical world was burned or moldered into dust. Almost all of it, Cahill claims, would surely have been lost if not for the Irish.

Having been converted to Christianity through the labors of Patrick, the Irish took with gusto to reading, writing and learning. They delighted in letters and bookmaking and painstakingly created indescribably beautiful Biblical manuscripts such as the Book of Kells which is on display today in the library of Trinity College in Dublin. Aware that the great works of the past were disappearing, they applied themselves assiduously to the daunting task of copying all surviving Western literature - everything they could lay their hands on.

For a century after the fall of Rome, Irish monks sequestered themselves in cold, damp, cramped mud huts called scriptoria, so remote and isolated from the world that they were seldom threatened by the marauding pagans. Here these men spent their entire adult lives reproducing the old manuscripts and preserving literacy and learning for the time when people would be once again ready to receive them.

These scribes and their successors served as the conduits through which the Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the benighted tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruin of the civilization they had recently overwhelmed. Around the late 6th century, three generations after Patrick, Irish missionaries with names like Columcille, Aidan, and Columbanus began to venture out from their monasteries and refuges, clutching their precious books to their hearts, sailing to England and the continent, founding their own monasteries and schools among the barbarians and teaching them how to read, write and make books of their own.

Absent the willingness of these courageous men to endure deprivations and hardships of every kind for the sake of the Gospel and learning, Cahill argues, the world that came after them would have been completely different. It would likely have been a world without books. Europe almost certainly would have been illiterate, and it would probably have been unable to resist the Muslim incursions that arrived a few centuries later.

The Europeans, starved for knowledge, soaked up everything the Irish missionaries could give them. From such seeds as these modern Western civilization germinated. From the Greeks the descendents of the Goths and Vandals learned philosophy, from the Romans they learned about law, from the Bible they learned of the worth of the individual who, created and loved by God, is therefore significant and not merely a brutish aggregation of matter.

From the Bible, too, they learned that the universe was created by a rational Mind and was thus not capricious, random, or chaotic. It would yield its secrets to rational investigation. Out of these assumptions, once their implications were finally and fully developed, grew historically unprecedented views of the value of the individual and the flowering of modern science.

Our cultural heritage is thus, in a very important sense, a legacy from the Irish. A legacy from Patrick. It is worth pondering on this St. Patrick's Day what the world would be like today had it not been for those early Irish scribes and missionaries thirteen centuries ago.

Buiochas le Dia ar son na nGaeil (Thank God for the Irish), and I hope you have a great St. Patrick's Day.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Illiterate Teachers

A recent article by the AP illustrates, perhaps inadvertantly, how political correctness harms minority kids. The article explains that New York education officials are planning to do away with a test given to prospective teachers to test their ability to read and comprehend what the read. The reason the test is being terminated is that too few minority teaching candidates are passing it:
New York education officials are poised to scrap a test designed to measure the reading and writing skills of people trying to become teachers, in part because an outsized percentage of black and Hispanic candidates were failing it.

The state Board of Regents on Monday is expected Monday to adopt a task force's recommendation of eliminating the literacy exam, known as the Academic Literacy Skills Test.

Backers of the test say eliminating it could put weak teachers in classrooms. Critics of the examination said it is redundant and a poor predictor of who will succeed as a teacher.
Well, maybe so if the teachers are going to be teaching something like phys ed, but if they're going to stand in front of an academic classroom one would think it'd be to their advantage and that of their students that they be able to read the textbooks their students are using. If they cannot it makes the claim that teaching is a profession somewhat hard to defend.
Leaders of the education reform movement have complained for years about the caliber of students entering education schools and the quality of the instruction they receive there. A December 2016 study by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that 44 percent of the teacher preparation programs it surveyed accepted students from the bottom half of their high school classes.

The reformers believe tests like New York's Academic Literacy Skills Test can serve to weed out aspiring teachers who aren't strong students.

But the literacy test raised alarms from the beginning because just 46 percent of Hispanic test takers and 41 percent of black test takers passed it on the first try, compared with 64 percent of white candidates.

A federal judge ruled in 2015 that the test was not discriminatory, but faculty members at education schools say a test that screens out so many minorities is problematic.

"Having a white workforce really doesn't match our student body anymore," Soodak said.
This seems a silly justification for allowing semi-literate teachers to be teaching kids. Having teachers who are married or over the age of twenty doesn't match the student body either, but those are not compelling reasons to employ single teenagers as teachers.

Kids, no matter what skin color they may have, deserve to have the best educated professionals at the front of their classrooms that the school can provide, whatever skin color those professionals may be. We do these young people no favors by truckling to the racist shibboleth that only black teachers can teach black students nor do we improve their chances in life by yielding to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Perhaps there are good reasons, as some people quoted in the article believe, for dispensing with this particular test, but the fact that those who fail are disproportionately black and Hispanic is not among them since the test was found by a federal court not to be discriminatory. In any case, there's an irony lurking about here.

When blacks were enslaved their owners often made it a serious offense for them to learn to read or for others to try to teach them to read. A literate, educated slave was considered to be dangerous. Now, education officials are tacitly saying that they, too, would rather young blacks not be taught to read if they're to be taught by competent, literate teachers who'll be able to exemplify the value and importance of literacy but who aren't the same color as the students.

The motivation of the state officials, though misguided, is certainly more noble than that of the slaveholders, but the end result is the same - black kids are held down and prevented from receiving the best education they can get, and thereby prevented from improving their chances of advancing in life.

I assume the education officials don't see the injustice of what they're doing to these kids but I wonder if they see the irony.