Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Premoderns and Postmoderns (Pt. II)

I'd like to continue our look at the First Things essay (Christians and Postmoderns) by Joseph Bottum that I began Saturday.

Bottum writes that:

[T]he massive scientific advance of modernity reveals how easy it is to discover facts, and modernity's collapse reveals how hard it is to hold knowledge. We have an apparatus for discovery unrivaled by the ages, yet every new fact means less than the previously discovered one, for we lack what turns facts to knowledge: the information of what the facts are for.

Precisely so. Modernity offers us no satisfying interpretive framework for assigning meaning to the facts discovered by science. It attempts to supply the need for such a framework by interpreting everything in terms of evolutionary development, but the view that each of us is just a meaningless cipher in the grand flow of time and evolution fails somehow to quench our deepest longings. According to the modern worldview there really is no purpose for the existence of anything. The facts discovered by science, as important as they may be for the furtherance of our technology, don't really have any metaphysical significance. Like everything else, they're just there.

Bottum continues:

And so "we must learn to live after truth," as a group of European academics wrote in After Truth: A Postmodern Manifesto. "Nothing is certain, not even this . . . The modern age opened with the destruction of God and religion. It is ending with the threatened destruction of all coherent thought." Nietzsche may have been the first to see this clearly .... But, even in the fundamental thinkers of high modernity, hints can be found that knowledge requires God: Descartes uses God in the Meditations in order to escape from the interiority where the cogito has stranded him; Kant uses God as a postulate of pure practical reason in order to hold on to the possibility of morality.

What believers have in common with postmoderns is a distrust of modern claims to knowledge. To be a believer, however, is to be subject to an attack that postmoderns, holding truthlessness to themselves like a lover, never have to face. The history of modernity in the West is in many ways nothing more than the effort to destroy medieval faith. It is a three-hundred-year attempt to demolish medieval (especially Catholic) claims to authority, and to substitute a structure of science and ethics based solely on human rationality.

But with the failure to discover any such rational structure - seen by the postmoderns - the only portion of the modern project still available to a modern is the destruction of faith. It should not surprise us that, in very recent times, attacks on what little is left of medieval belief have become more outrageous: resurgent anti-Semitism, anti-Islamic broadsides, vicious mockery of evangelical preaching, desecrations of the Host in Catholic masses. For modern men and women, nothing else remains of the high moral project of modernity: these attacks are the only good thing left to do. The attackers are convinced of the morality of their attack not by the certainty of their aims - who's to say what's right or wrong? - but by opposition from believers.

I take Bottum to be saying here that modernity, in its death throes, wishes only to finish the business of killing off God, or at least belief in God. Modernity has nothing else to offer. It cannot give answers to any of life's most gripping existential questions. Nowhere in the writings of the anti-theists at large today do we find an answer to any of the following: Why is the universe here? How did life come about? Why is the universe so magnificently fine-tuned for life? Where did human consciousness come from? Why do we feel joy when we encounter beauty? How can we prove that our reason is reliable without using reason to prove it? How can we account for our conviction that we have free will? What obligates us to care about others? Why do we feel guilt? Who do I refer to when I refer to myself? What gives human beings worth, dignity, and rights? If death is the end justice is unattainable, so why do we yearn for it? Why do we need meaning and purpose? What is our purpose?

Ask the Richard Dawkins' of the world those questions and all you'll get in reply is a shrug of the shoulders or a recitation of the alleged historical crimes of the Church. They dodge the question because they have no answer. This is a bit ironic: Neither modern nor postmodern atheism has an answer to the most profound questions we can ask. The only possible answer lies in the God of the "premodern" and this is the one solution to man's existential emptiness that the modern and postmodern atheist simply cannot abide.

More later.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Campus Hatred

One of the most troubling developments on modern American campuses has been the movement away from intelligent dialogue on matters of difference and toward the use of threats, intimidation, and suppression of free speech. The tactic is a rejection of the traditional American ideals of tolerance and free exchange of ideas and represents an embrace of the tactic of dehumanizing one's opponents by depriving them of their right to express opinions in an atmosphere free of fear.

It manifests itself on campus against both students and faculty who fail to pay suitable obeisance to the prophets of climate change catastrophe or who doubt the orthodoxies promoted by the proselytizers of Darwinian evolution, but in its ugliest form it discloses itself as a virulent, hateful anti-semitism as this video shows:
The sort of conduct displayed by the "anti-zionists" on this video would not be tolerated on campus were it, say, neo-nazis demonstrating against civil rights of minorities or even Jews demonstrating against Palestinian terrorism. Nor would a professor who created a climate of intimidation in a classroom go unpunished were the discomfort produced in the course of addressing any other issue.

If Nazis or Jews were conducting themselves like the thugs in the video the nation would be rightly horrified and the universities would be expelling the culprits as fast as they could identify them. Yet, Palestinians and their sympathizers are given tacit permission to permeate the campus with their hate and intolerance with impunity. Why?

As one of the speakers in the video points out, serious human rights violations are occurring all across the globe, often at the hands of Muslims, but the extent of the concern of campus activists at these horrors amounts to little more than a yawn. Why is it Israel and Jews that somehow manages to elicit paroxysms of bigotry and ugliness among students and how long will these be tolerated before university administrators put some steel in their spines and bring them to a stop?

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Premoderns and Postmoderns (Pt. I)

There are in the West three basic ways to look at the world, three worldviews which serve as lenses through which we interpret the experiences of our lives. Those three worldviews are essentially distinguished by their view of God, truth, and the era in which they were dominant among the cultural elite. We may, with some license, label these the premodern, modern, and postmodern. The premodern, lasting from ancient times until the Enlightenment (17th century), was essentially Christian. The modern, which lasted until roughly WWII, was essentially naturalistic and secular, and the postmodern, which has been with us now for a couple of generations, is hostile to the Enlightenment emphasis on Reason and objective truth.

I recently came across a wonderful treatment of the tension between these three "metanarratives" in an essay written by medieval scholar Joseph Bottum for First Things back in 1994. FT reprinted his article in an anniversary issue, and I thought it would be useful to touch on some of the highlights.

Bear in mind that although the terms premodern, modern and postmodern refer to historical eras there are people who exemplify the qualities of each of these in every era, including our own. Thus though we live in a postmodern age due to the dominance of postmodern assumptions among the shapers of contemporary thought, there are lots of premoderns and moderns around. Indeed, outside the academy I suspect most people are either premodern or modern in their outlook.

About a quarter of the way into his essay Bottum, writing on behalf of the Christian (premodern) worldview, says this:

We cannot revert to the premodern, we cannot return to the age of faith, for we were all of us raised as moderns.

And yet, though we cannot revert, we nonetheless have resources that may help us to advance beyond these late times. The modern project that attacked the Middle Ages has itself been under attack for some time. For some time, hyper-modern writers have brought to bear against their modern past the same sort of scarifying analysis that earlier modern writers brought against the premodern past. These later writers, supposing the modern destruction of God to be complete, have turned their postmodern attacks upon the modern project of Enlightenment rationality.

The postmodern project is, as Francois Lyotard put it, a suspicion of all metanarratives based on reason. It rejects the Enlightenment confidence that human reason can lead us to truth about the world, particularly truth about the important matters of meaning, religion and morality. Indeed, postmodern thinkers are skeptical of any claims to a "truth" beyond simple empirical facts.

Bottum continues:

In some sense, of course, these words premodern, modern, and postmodern are too slippery to mean much. Taken to refer to the history of ideas, they seem to name the periods before, during, and after the Enlightenment, but taken to refer to the history of events, they seem to name the period from creation to the rise of science, the period from the rise of science until World War II, and the period since the war. It is tempting to define the categories philosophically, rather than historically, around the recognition that knowledge depends upon the existence of God. But the better modern philosophers (e.g., Descartes and Kant, as opposed to, say, Voltaire) recognize that dependence in some way or another. Perhaps, though definitions based on intent are always weak, the best definition nonetheless involves intent: it is premodern to seek beyond rational knowledge for God; it is modern to desire to hold knowledge in the structures of human rationality (with or without God); it is postmodern to see the impossibility of such knowledge.

In other words, premoderns believe we can have knowledge of God through direct experience apart from reason. As Pascal put it, "The heart has reasons that reason can never know." Moderns believe that knowledge can only come through the exercise of our reason. Postmoderns hold that moderns are deluding themselves. None of us can separate our reason from our biases, prejudices, experiences and so on, all of which shape our perspective and color the lenses through which we view the world. For the postmodern there is no such thing as objective reason or truth.

Bottum again:

The premoderns said that without God, there would be no knowledge, and the postmoderns say we have no God and have no knowledge. The premoderns said that without the purposefulness of final causation, all things would be equally valueless, and the postmoderns say there is no purpose and no value. The premoderns said that without an identity of reality and the Good, there would be no right and wrong, and the postmoderns say there is neither Good nor right and wrong. Though they disagree on whether God exists, premoderns and postmoderns share the major premise that knowing requires His existence. Only for a brief period in the history of the West-the period of modern times-did anyone seriously suppose that human beings could hold knowledge without God.

Here is an interesting insight. Christians hold in common with modern atheists that there is objective truth, that there is meaning to life, and that there is moral right and wrong. At the same time they hold in common with postmodern atheists (not all postmoderns are atheists, it should be stressed) that none of those beliefs can be sustained unless there is a God. Does this, as Bottum alleges, put Christians closer to postmoderns than to moderns?

More next week.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Head Transplant

New Scientist has an article about an Italian surgeon, Sergio Canavero, who fully anticipates doing head transplants within a few years. Aside from the practical difficulties involved, which Canavero thinks we're on the cusp of solving, there are some serious ethical concerns being raised about this. I'm not sure that most of the ethical concerns can't be assuaged, but I do wonder about something else.

Before I get into that here's the lede from the New Scientist report:
It's heady stuff. The world's first attempt to transplant a human head will be launched this year at a surgical conference in the US. The move is a call to arms to get interested parties together to work towards the surgery.

The idea was first proposed in 2013 by Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy. He wants to use the surgery to extend the lives of people whose muscles and nerves have degenerated or whose organs are riddled with cancer. Now he claims the major hurdles, such as fusing the spinal cord and preventing the body's immune system from rejecting the head, are surmountable, and the surgery could be ready as early as 2017.

The first attempt at a head transplant was carried out on a dog by Soviet surgeon Vladimir Demikhov in 1954. A puppy's head and forelegs were transplanted onto the back of a larger dog. Demikhov conducted several further attempts but the dogs only survived between two and six days.

The first successful head transplant, in which one head was replaced by another, was carried out in 1970. A team led by Robert White at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, transplanted the head of one monkey onto the body of another. They didn't attempt to join the spinal cords, though, so the monkey couldn't move its body, but it was able to breathe with artificial assistance. The monkey lived for nine days until its immune system rejected the head. Although few head transplants have been carried out since, many of the surgical procedures involved have progressed. "I think we are now at a point when the technical aspects are all feasible," says Canavero.
The article goes on to discuss exactly how Canavero hopes to accomplish this surgery and some of the reaction to it in the medical community. The question I would pose is this: If the surgery is successful, who would the resulting individual be? Would he/she be the person whose head is afixed to the torso, or would he/she be the person whose torso it is? Or would the resulting individual be a new person altogether?

Most people would probably opt for the first alternative, believing that the self is somehow associated with the brain. If, then, Dr. Canavero could somehow transplant simply the brain the resulting individual would be the self whose brain he/she bears. But why think that the material brain is necessary to identify the self? Why would the self not be the body or brain at all but rather the information that's contained in the brain so that if we could download the information contained in the brain into another brain/body physical system it would be identical to downloading the self into another physical system?

Of course, information is immaterial which means that the self is immaterial which means we're getting uncomfortably (from a materialist point of view) to saying that the self is really one's soul.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Litmus Tests

A writer at The New Yorker by the name of Adam Gopnik believes that a presidential aspirant's views on evolution should be a litmus test for serving as president. Really, he does. Speaking of the question asked of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker last week in London as to whether he believed in evolution, Gopnik says this:
What the question means, and why it matters, is plain: Do you have the courage to embrace an inarguable and obvious truth when it might cost you something to do so? A politician who fails this test is not high-minded or neutral; he or she is just craven, and shouldn’t be trusted with power. This catechism’s purpose—perhaps unfair in its form, but essential in its signal—is to ask, Do you stand with reason and evidence sufficiently to anger people among your allies who don’t?
This is silliness of a high order. It assumes that our politicians all have thought deeply about the matter and have arrived at a considered opinion about it, which is nonsense. I doubt very much whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama can explain the difference between genetic drift and natural selection or between micro and macroevolution, or what punctuated equilibrium is. Indeed, I doubt either of them could explain what Neo-Darwinism is. Nor should that deficit count against them as long as they don't decide to pontificate on the matter. If someone does not have much expertise on something then, pace Mr. Gopnik, it's both rational and wise to refrain from offering opinions on it as if he had.

More than than the silliness of what amounts to a religious test of high office, Gopnik's profession of fealty to reason and evidence is hard to believe. After all, evolution of the Darwinian variety, i.e. the view that natural processes and forces are adequate to account for all that we see in the living world, is not necessarily based on reason or evidence but rather often on a commitment to a naturalistic metaphysics. Consider what several accomplished evolutionary biologists have said on this very point:
“[I believe evolution to be true] not because it can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible,” the late D.M.S. Watson, chair of evolution at the University of London.

“Evolution is unproved and improvable, we believe it because the only alternative is special creation, which is unthinkable,” Sir Arthur Keith, the late physical anthropologist and head of the Anatomy Department at London Hospital.

"Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door." Richard Lewontin, former professor of genetics at Harvard University.
Gopnik continues:
All the available evidence collected within the past hundred and fifty years is strongly in its favor, and no evidence argues that it is in any significant way false.
Unfortunately for Gopnik's thesis this claim is itself false. The theory may, in its major lineaments, be true, but it's simply wrong to say that there's no significant evidence against it. Gopnik should read Stephen Meyer's books, Signature in the Cell, or Darwin's Doubt, or Michael Behe's books Darwin's Black Box or The Edge of Evolution, or Jonathan Wells' Icons of Evolution, or Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis or Nature's Destiny. It may turn out that the evidence amassed in these works can be explained in Darwinian terms, but so far most refutations of them consist pretty much of assertions that the problems raised have all been answered without actually showing exactly how that is so.

Anyone wishing to read more about the problems with Darwinism without having to read a whole book can check out a relatively short piece by Casey Luskin in which he lists and explains ten problems that Darwinian versions of evolution have found to be intractable. The ten are these. Go to the link for the explanations:
  1. Darwinism has no viable mechanism to generate a primordial soup
  2. Unguided \chemical processes cannot explain the origin of the genetic code
  3. Random mutations cannot generate the genetic information required for irreducibly complex structures
  4. Natural Selection struggles to fix advantageous traits into populations
  5. The abrupt appearance of species in the fossil record does not support Darwinian evolution
  6. Molecular biology has failed to yield a grand "Tree of Life"
  7. Convergent evolution challenges Darwinism and destroys the logic behind common ancestry
  8. Differences between vertebrate embryos contradict the predictions of common ancestry
  9. Neo-Darwinism struggles to explain the biogeographical distribution of many species
  10. Neo-Darwinism has a long history of inaccurate Darwinian predictions about vestigial organs and "Junk DNA"
Apparently unmindful of these difficulties Gopnik goes on to say this:
But evolutionary biology is not an ideology, which one believes in or doesn’t. What it demands is not belief but what science always demands, and that is the ability to evaluate the evidence and hear out the theory, and to poke holes in it if you can. So far, the fabric remains defiantly unpoked, the holes either unmade or else readily mended, with the stitching improving the tensile strength of the whole.
Again, there may eventually turn out to be answers to these difficulties within a neo-Darwinian framework (although as time goes on this seems less and less likely), but the assumption that they will is an act of faith. It's a faith in the truth of the metaphysical view called naturalistic materialism. Ironically enough, for man committed to reason, Gopnik's insistence that presidential candidates share his particular faith seems more than a little unreasonable.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Fundamental Reality

This is a rerun of a post I wrote on May, 31st of last year. I'm reposting it since it's relevant to some topics my students and I have been discussing in class:

For most of the 19th and 20th centuries it was the consensus view among scientists and philosophers that reality, the universe, was fundamentally material. The belief was that everything was reducible to matter and energy and that if there was any immaterial substance, it was a property of matter. Thus, in this materialist view, there was no such thing as mind or soul that existed independently of matter. Mind, if it existed, emerged from matter.

All this began to change in the 20th century with the development of quantum physics, and as that century came to a close and the new century began a number of experiments were done which led physicists to believe that, in fact, mind is fundamental and that the material world is an emergent property of mind.

Rather than seeing the universe as a machine, as thinkers had done ever since Isaac Newton in the 17th century, the universe was now being viewed, in the words of Sir James Jeans, more like "a grand idea."

The following video gives a fairly good description of two experiments in physics which have led many (not all) scientists to agree with Jeans. The video moves quickly so you might wish to replay parts of it.

There's resistance to accepting the universe as a product of mind because such a view both refutes the materialism upon which atheism rests and fits nicely into a theistic view of the world (see the quote from physicist Alain Aspect below).

Nevertheless, this is the view accepted by a growing number of quantum physicists. Here are a few quotes to illustrate:

“As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.” Max Planck (1944)

“Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.” Erwin Schroedinger.

“It will remain remarkable, in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the scientific conclusion that the content of the consciousness is the ultimate universal reality” -Eugene Wigner 1961 – received Nobel Prize in 1963

"If materialism cannot accommodate consciousness and other mind-related aspects of reality, then we must abandon a purely materialist understanding of nature in general, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history." Philosopher Thomas Nagel

"What is more, recent experiments are bringing to light that the experimenter’s free will and consciousness should be considered axioms (founding principles) of standard quantum physics theory. So for instance, in experiments involving 'entanglement' (the phenomenon Einstein called 'spooky action at a distance'), to conclude that quantum correlations of two particles are nonlocal (i.e. cannot be explained by signals traveling at velocity less than or equal to the speed of light), it is crucial to assume that the experimenter can make free choices, and is not constrained in what orientation he/she sets the measuring devices...To understand these implications it is crucial to be aware that quantum physics is not only a description of the material and visible world around us, but also speaks about non-material influences coming from outside the space-time." Antoine Suarez, 2013

"Why do people cling with such ferocity to belief in a mind-independent reality? It is surely because if there is no such reality, then ultimately (as far as we can know) mind alone exists. And if mind is not a product of real matter, but rather is the creator of the “illusion” of material reality (which has, in fact, despite the materialists, been known to be the case, since the discovery of quantum mechanics in 1925), then a theistic view of our existence becomes the only rational alternative to solipsism (solipsism is the philosophical idea that only one’s own mind is sure to exist)." Alain Aspect, 2007

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Sizes of Things

Here's a fun interactive site that you won't be able to stop playing with. By moving the scroll bar you can zoom in or out to see how big the universe is compared to our planet and how big we are compared to the smallest parts of an atom.

Give it a try and spend a little time just being amazed. You'll need an updated version of Adobe Flash Player, though.