Sunday, April 29, 2012

Getting Knowledge, or The Difference Between Certainty and Certitude.

         I must do now what scholars rarely do, but should do:  I must define my terms.  That way, even if you disagree with what I think, at least you'll know what I mean.
         "Knowledge" is justified belief.  That is, knowledge is consent to a true idea because the reasons for it are sound.  Consent to things true for the wrong reasons, or for no reasons whatever, is not knowledge but luck -- dumb luck.
         "Truth" is the agreement of our ideas with reality.  If our ideas comport with how things really are, they are true.  If they do not, they are false.
         "Objective" is when the object under review controls your thoughts about it. "Subjective" is when the subject doing the investigation controls his or her own thoughts about the object.  "Objective" receives from the object; "subjective" imposes upon the object.
         "Certitude" is how sure we feel about a thing.
         "Certainty" is how sure a thing is in itself, regardless of how we feel about it. 
         Regarding the last two notions, I need to say more.
         Having great amounts of certitude does not make a thing certain.  Having no certitude about a thing does not make it uncertain.  We often mistakenly think so because we confuse these two concepts, which I'd like to keep separate.  Because we conflate or confuse these concepts, we sometimes do things that increase our certitude about an idea and think that by doing so we have increased its certainty when we have not.  Certitude is something about us; certainty is something about it.  That's another way of saying that it's possible to feel quite sure about things that are utterly false and unsure about things that are objectively true.  Think here about all the centuries we thought the earth was both flat and the center of the universe.  To our detriment, we sometimes confuse and conflate things that are different, things like certitude and certainty.  Our task, in part, is to keep separate things separate.  Certainty and certitude are two such things.
         I think that when many persons complain about uncertainty they actually are complaining about imperfect certitude.  Therefore, when they set about trying to fix what troubles them, they do things that make them feel more certitude, but that don't really strengthen certainty.  Some appeals to authority and to infallibility strike me as just such aids-to-certitude masquerading as aids-to-certainty.  Those appeals are futile simply because we human beings cannot produce certainty.  Producing certainty is a Divine, not a human, prerogative.  Only God can make things certain, and He does so by establishing those things Himself.  What God has established is certain -- whether we know those things or not, whether we agree with those things or not, and whether we have certitude about them or not.
         Because I am a Christian and move in predominantly Christian circles, when I explain here the difference between certitude and certainty, and the way some folks strengthen the former while thinking they are strengthening the latter, two groups come to mind:  Protestants who misapply the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, and Catholics who misapply the doctrine of infallibility.  I am not here arguing against either doctrine.  I am remarking about their misuse and about the motivations that seem sometimes to lurk behind that misuse as its operative and generative principle.  (To be fair, I lay exactly the same charge, and perhaps more, against most of the scientists with whom I have ever spoken.  Indeed, I know of no group of scholars more inclined to conflate certainty and certitude than modern scientists.)
        To move one step forward:  The only good reason for believing a thing is because it's true; the only good reason for rejecting something is because it's false.  That much is simple, but not easy.  It's sometimes hard to tell which one is which, and that can be enormously unsettling.  It undermines our certitude, which makes us deeply uncomfortable.  Because we humans have a strong distaste for ambiguity, especially on the issues that are most important to us, we don't want to stay in that uncomfortable and unsettling position.  To escape it, we sometimes produce specious reasons for believing things, reasons that comfort us, but that aren't sound reasons for belief, and that don't establish certainty. 
         Short of Heaven, full certitude is probably beyond us, even if we pay close attention to Scripture, to tradition, and to the Church.  But I, for one, will not complain to God about that.  If that is the world He left us, it is enough.
         Knowing is required of us by God Himself.  We are commanded by Christ to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Matt. 22: 37).  When Jesus said that, He was quoting an Old Testament passage (Deut. 6: 5) -- a passage to which He added a word -- and the word He added was "mind."  Minds are for knowing, and knowing is more than repeating what we've been told or taught.  As a matter of Christian stewardship, we are to make the best use we can of our minds.  By means of them we are to know -- each of us.  Our task is to know things as they really are, and not how we'd like them to be, because how we'd like them to be does not make them more certain but simply gives us a heart-warming sense of certitude.  As regards you and me, this shortcoming is not the shortcoming primarily of others.  We need to see it as our own and to guard against it diligently.   You will know yourself in greatest danger of opting for certitude (how you feel) rather than for certainty (how God has actually worked) in those moments when your system is under attack.
         To quote Tennyson:
"Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they." 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Evironmentalist Icon Says He Overstated Climate Change (from IBD)

He claimed in 2006 that "before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable."

But he has told MSNBC that he overstated the case and now acknowledges that "we don't know what the climate is doing."
"We thought we knew 20 years ago," he said. "That led to some alarmist books — mine included — because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn't happened."

The 92-year-old Lovelock notes that "the climate is doing its usual tricks" and concedes "there's nothing much really happening yet" even though "we were supposed to be halfway toward a frying world now."

Lovelock hasn't fully changed course yet. MSNBC says he still believes climate change is occurring, though not as rapidly as he once thought.

"The world has not warmed up very much since the millennium. Twelve years is a reasonable time," he said. Yet the temperature "has stayed almost constant, whereas it should have been rising — carbon dioxide is rising, no question about that."

As we have said before, linking human activity to climate and weather is a foolish proposition.
Researchers can theorize that an increase in human-caused CO2 emissions will heat the planet, but they haven't been able to prove it. There are too many forces outside of man that influence temperature, precipitation, clouds, humidity and wind.

Rather than continuing to contend that man is driving temperatures to dangerous levels, it seems that is the explanation that Lovelock is moving toward, though apparently quite slowly.

But give the independent scientist credit for admitting his mistake as well as pointing out that a university or government researcher might not be so inclined to admit error due to fear he would lose funding for bucking the alarmist narrative. His honesty in the midst of an issue so shrouded in deceit is refreshing.

 (From Investor's Business Daily)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Bible and the Liberal Arts (reposted)

     Because the Bible God inspired is a historical and literary artifact, you can't understand the history and literature of the Bible unless you already have read and understood vast amounts of other history and literature.  That necessity yields this observation:  A prior revival of languages and literature is the precursor for a recovery or revival of Biblical understanding and Biblical truth.
          Because learning precedes theological recovery, the Reformation could not have happened until the Renaissance had re-discovered the classical tools of learning and culture, thus making a more accurate reading of the Bible possible.  Enlightened theologians like Erasmus, a Catholic, and Calvin, a  Protestant, thereby were enabled to transcend the blinding myopia and constrained techniques of the medieval schoolmen.  Those schoolmen were beholden to, and misguided by, slavish obeisance to Aristotle (among other things).  Fealty to Aristotle and his truncated methods is not the same as acquiring the wide-ranging historical, literary, cultural, and theological knowledge needed to read and apply the Bible properly.  That is the case whether you are a philosophical realist like Thomas Aquinas, or a nominalist like William of Ockham, or neither.   After all, you'll recall that Jesus and Paul, pretty fair theologians in their own right, were neither, and that neither of them employed Aristotle's methods or rubric in their explication or application of Scripture to life in a fallen world.  Nor should we, at least if we want to have the mind of Christ, as we are commanded.
          To be rightly educated for theology is be educated in a way both deep and wide.  Deep and wide go together and are mutually corrective.  You must not have one without the other.  Deep without wide is tunnel vision; wide without deep is peripheral vision.  Alone, neither one is full and integrated sight.  Even at their best, the medieval schoolmen were subject to tunnel vision.  They thought that Aristotle's shrunken methods, rubric, and conclusions were the key to understanding the Bible, theology, and apologetics aright, as if being ignorant of history, language, and literature were no small hindrance to insight, a failure Erika Rummel has detailed admirably in her The Humanist-Scholastic Debate in the Renaissance and Reformation (Cambridge:  Harvard, 1995).  Outside the narrow confines of scholastic dialectics, the schoolmen were desperately under-informed.  Because they were, they did not know the damage they were inflicting upon theology by mainstreaming Aristotle and his pagan methods and presuppositions into western religious thought.  They did not recognize the vast difference, and frequent incompatibility -- in worldview, content, or intellectual technique -- between, say, the ancient Jews, on the one hand, and their ancient pagan contemporaries, on the other.  Put differently, you cannot move seamlessly back and forth between Isaiah and Aristotle, David and Avicenna, or Elijah and Averroes.  Nor, for that matter, can you do so between Plato and Moses or Epicurus and Peter, as if worldviews and their attendant implications in all directions were nothing significant.
          Evangelical Protestants, of all theologians, ought to be most grateful for the Renaissance breakthrough, for its movement back to the sources and its ardent embrace of the humanities.  But judging from their books, their class syllabi, and their lecture notes, they are not.  Almost immediately after Calvin, Reformed theologians reverted to the scholastic methods of their medieval predecessors, as the language, the structure, the arguments, and the content of their systematic theologies clearly indicate.   Gone is the narrative unfolding of God's mighty works in history.  The inspired words that reveal the meaning  and significance of those events, and the narrative and literary format in which we find those explanatory words, have been displaced by the wooden and alien framework of Greek metaphysics and its rubric of abstraction -- as if one could and should replace divine character (which captivated the Jews) with metaphysical characteristics (which did not).  The methods of the Protestant scholastics are alien to the the ways and means of Scripture, and distortive of them.  You might as well try to interpret Dickens' Tale of Two Cities with the methods of modern archaeology as to filter the Bible through the sieve of the dialectical method.  Thomism is not the key to sound Biblical hermeneutics.  It is sometimes its worst enemy.  Biblical theology is not simply philosophy you do about God, and its techniques and procedures are not those of the schoolmen, of either the nominalist or the realist stripe.
          Nevertheless, scholasticism endures even among the Protestants:  (A) If you follow their arguments and their nomenclature, you find they the are the arguments and nomenclature of the scholastics, not of Scripture, even when they quote Bible verses and claim the Bible only is the word of God and ought to be understood on its own terms.  (B) If you check the table of contents and the index of the most popular and widely used Evangelical or Reformed systematic theologies, you find no chapter or set of chapters, no extended explanation, and no precisely and systematically articulated implementation of either history or of literature within them -- as if theology could be well understood and wisely applied without them, and as if Christ were not properly the Lord of literally all things, theology and hermeneutical method included.  They do not do theology in His way, but in the way of the medieval schoolmen. Almost any allusion to history, literature, or art those books employ is tendentious, triumphalist, and polemical at the root.  Catholic systematics, of course, are no better, their invoking of a severely truncated and misleading version of Christian history and tradition being a case in point, especially as it entails a commitment to Thomist methods and conclusions.  In other words, the failure to which I allude is not limited to one church or another.
           Despite the characteristics of the Bible itself, systematic theologies are typically devoid of historical and literary expertise.  Their wooden and pedestrian articulation reflects that damning fact.  Nor do they have chapters on art, being artless themselves.  They are written by, and assigned as textbooks by, persons who are not historically astute, not literarily, artistically, or scientifically aware, and not impressively and memorably articulate -- even though the authors who write them and the teachers who assign them say they value the liberal arts and think we ought to require them.
        Judging from their theological textbooks and their methods, the liberal arts do not enter into it all. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tiny, Happy People: C. Ben Mitchell on Global Warming, Human Engineering, and Ethics

Just when you think you have heard it all, someone pushes the envelope. According to three ethicists writing in the journal Ethics, Policy and the Environment, because geoengineering might be too risky a way to combat global climate change, we should alter the human species instead.

Here is the argument offered by Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg, and Rebecca Roache. Climate change is the result of human corruption of the environment—so-called anthropogenic causes. Climate change affects food production, access to water, health, and the environment. Since, in their view, millions could suffer from the consequences of climate change something radical must be done. Recycling, tax-incentives, and large-scale manipulation of the environment are, according to the authors, either too negligible or too grand to be effective. Geoengineering, in particular, is disadvantageous because “in many cases, we lack the necessary scientific knowledge to devise and implement geoengineering without significant risk to ourselves and to future generations” (p. 4). So, in one breathtaking leap, the authors argue that we ought to consider “biomedical modification of humans to make them better at mitigating climate change.”

To be fair, they do offer a caveat: “Our central aim [in the paper] is to show that human engineering deserves consideration alongside other solutions in the debate about how to solve the problem of climate change. Also, as we envisage it, human engineering would be a voluntary activity—possibly supported by incentives such as tax breaks or sponsored health care—rather than a coerced, mandatory activity.”

The suggestion that we ought to modify the human species as a means of mitigating climate change is at once both naive and hubristic. If they think modifying the environment may be difficult, successfully modifying the extraordinarily intricate balance of human homeostasis is a pipedream at best. Here is what they think might be desirable.

First, humans might be altered to be meat aversive. All one would have to do is stimulate the immune system so as to “induce mild intolerance (akin, e.g., to milk intolerance)” to meat. Or, since the “human ecological footprints are partly correlated to our size,” we can just make humans smaller! “Reducing the average US height by 15 cm would mean a mass reduction of 23% for men and 25% for women, with a corresponding reduction of metabolic rate (15%/18%), since less tissue means lower nutrients and energy needs.” One way to produce these tiny people would be through pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, say the authors. Just select the embryos for transfer to a woman’s womb that have the genes for compactness; toss the embryos will tall genes. Smaller humans could also be produced through hormone therapy and reduction of birth-weight.

Second, the number of humans could be modified through cognitive enhancement. Why cognitive enhancement? Because apparently only stupid people have more than two children per family. “There seems to be a link,” the authors maintain, “between cognition itself and lower birth-rates.” Since two children per family is lower than the replacement rate (of roughly 2.1 per family in industrialized countries), population would decline.

Third, pharmacological enhancements could increase altruism and empathy. The result: generous and happy people through chemistry. Modifying altruism and empathy “by human engineering could be promising.” Testosterone, by the way, “appears to decrease aspects of empathy,” according to the authors. So, to follow their logic, since testosterone prepares both males and female for reproduction, reducing its levels in every human body would both reduce the number of people on the earth and, at the same time, make them more compliant.

Why undertake the re-engineering of the human species? Because, say the authors, “human engineering is potentially less risky than geoengineering. Second, human engineering could make behavior and market solutions more likely to succeed.” In other words, we would be far more likely to create tiny, happy people than we would be to modify the environment or create incentives that would encourage environmental stewardship.

Most readers will find the suggestion that re-engineering the species to control climate change is simply ludicrous on the face of it. But it is worse than ludicrous, it is dangerous. Although the authors say these alterations will come about voluntarily, it would, in fact, be parents who would make these decisions for the next generation without consent. Our children would become guinea pigs in a massive genetic and pharmacological engineering experiment—which, in many cases, we would be unable to reverse.

In an interview with Ross Andersen in The Atlantic, one of the authors, Matthew Liao, a professor of philosophy at New York University, said that making these sorts of modifications in our children is not morally problematic. After all, the tiny, happy child will thank you for making him smaller and more altruistic. And why shouldn’t he? You modified him to be generous and altruistic.

Well, what about an individual’s free will? Wouldn’t giving a child behavior modifying drugs to make her detest meat violate her freedom? Says Liao, “ . . . in some sense your inability to control yourself is a limit on the will, or a limit on your liberty. A meat patch would allow you to truly decide whether you want to have a steak or not, and that could be quite liberty enhancing.” So, by extension, a little doping of the water supply would help people truly express their will. The logic is simply perverse.

In this paper we see another example of the human self-loathing that is so much a part of both the environmentalist and transhumanist movements. For environmentalists, human beings are parasitic threats. For the transhumanists, human beings are maladaptive and need re-engineering. Instead of seeing human creativity, innovation, and market forces applied in stewardly ways for the sake of the truly human good, the technologist (the human) becomes the technological artifact (the modified post-human). Human re-engineering, it seems to me, is a far greater threat to our humanity than climate change.

C. Ben Mitchell is Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University.

(from First Things)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter Dawns in the Laboratory

In the middle ages, we called science "natural philosophy" because we understood that science was the application of a particular philosophy to our understanding of the natural world.  The philosophy then employed was the philosophy of Aristotle, with its mixed bag of insight and nonsense.
Science still is natural philosophy, even though we’ve dropped the name.  The philosophy it now employs -- empiricism -- is exploded.  Even though the finest philosophers now rarely advocate empiricism, modern science still insists on being its laboratory application.  Someone needs to tell the scientists that the rest of the world has junked the scientists’ philosophy and might have been right to do so.
If bad ideas have bad consequences, and if empiricism is a philosophically bad idea, then one wonders what bad consequences flow from the bad philosophy that sits as the bedrock of modern science and is the engine of its movement.
Worth considering, that.
When challenged on the point, these otherwise empirical scientists often take resort to pragmatism:  “We use empiricism because it works.”  Pay no attention to the fact that as a worldview pragmatism has its own set of fatal flaws.  Simply notice that a moment earlier the scientists were talking as if science yielded truth and empirical facts.  Now they don’t.  They move seamlessly yet schizophrenically back and forth between supreme confidence and self-effacing mealy-mouthedness, depending upon which one serves their purposes best at the moment.   
The same nonsense holds true with the scientists’ faulty theology, which says that God, if He exists at all, is and ought to be irrelevant to scientific endeavor, that we can proceed quite nicely without Him, thank you very much.  Put on this lab coat and leave your Bible at the door.
That's perfectly bad theology, pure and simple.
It might be well for scientists to consider Wolfhart Pannenberg’s hypothesis that God is not only a field of force without limitations of time or extension, but that He is the field of force and, if so, then the scientists have been dealing with Him all along in one way and another yet never once realized it because their suffocating worldview made such recognition simply impossible. 
I'm not saying that the alternative to modern science is the bastardized nonsense that one gets at some Christian colleges, but neither ought it to be the bastardized nonsense one gets at shamelessly secular enclaves like Harvard or Oxford, as if Richard Dawkins, not John Lennox, John Polkinghorne, or Michael Polanyi were the master of interdisciplinary thinking on this subject (or any other).
All this academically myopic, self-congratulatory, under-informed, scientific delusion happens because we have divided human knowledge up into discreet and externally impenetrable academic disciplines, each with its own private set of presuppositions and methods, and each with the freedom to do as it sees fit without regard to the knowledge gained in other disciplines.
But it’s utterly unreal.  It’s utterly a rejection of things as they really are:  We don’t have, say, a mathematical universe alongside a historical universe, alongside a philosophical universe, alongside a chemical universe, alongside a theological universe, alongside a sociological universe, alongside a rhetorical universe, alongside a political universe.  We have but one world, and the answers we offer to life’s fundamental and enduring questions need to be true across the board.  Regarding origins, for example, it cannot be that (A.) the universe and matter are eternal and also that (B.) we have reached today -- any today.  Why not? Because it is impossible to traverse infinity, and if the universe is infinitely old, then you can’t get from infinity past to here.
Yet, here we are.
Some scientists, I am pleased to say, have escaped this prison and its “mind-forged manacles.”  They work at places like the Discovery Institute; they also have serious doubts about evolutionary theory and the very unpristine data concerning global warming.  
The prominence of contemporary scientific silliness is the by-product of academic segregation; it's just Jim Crow in charge of the curriculum:  “Separate (disciplines) but equal,” which means, we all know, separate but unequal.  No scientist I know thinks we ought to give equal weight to science and to Karl Barth’s intellectual earthquake, which brought down the towers of natural philosophy and natural theology, or to the first Christians’ discovery of the empty tomb on Easter morning.  If, indeed, the tomb was empty, if Spirit reversed physical death -- doing what matter could never do -- then the scientific presupposition that only matter matters, and that only matter-based hypotheses are acceptable is simply false.  In such a world, science misses out on some of the most important, perhaps even the most important, explanatory principle in or out of the universe:  God.  Easter has dawned in the laboratory and no one there even noticed.
That’s because scientists don’t really think that Theology yields knowledge, that Theology is really an academic discipline that needs to be heard and taken into account.  But they do think the theologians ought to listen to the scientists.  They also think that the traffic between the two disciplines, if it exists at all, ought to be a one-way street from the laboratory to Jesus’ gravesite, not the other way round.
They think that Theology must sit in the back of the bus.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Rose Macaulay on the Roots of Mysticism and Romance

         “This vast and curious universe, with its impenetrable destinies, these wild and spinning masses lit by strange fires, dashing hither and thither to destruction through cold and illimitable space, or running obediently round and round, like the squirrel in his cage, this singular planet we ourselves adorn, humming with its queer freight of animal and vegetable life, its squalor and materialism lit, as by wavering candles, by beauty, by valour, and by dreams – certainly the whole universe is built of the very fabric of romance.”

Rose Macaulay,  A Casual Commentary