Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Challenge to Faith

Philosopher John Haldane of Scotland presented at the JPII conference last weekend. Part of his talk was about the challenges to faith in the modern world. He identified three of them: cosmological immanentism, evolutionary naturalism, and philosophical materialism. He made a special point to emphasize the last two, in particular that Catholic philosophy, or religion in general, could never expect to destroy the philosophical foundations of science. The results that science has produced are too useful and too convincing for that.

Please understand that Prof. Haldane is a distinguished academic, and I am your typical idiot with a keyboard, but nonetheless I am actually quite confident that Prof. Haldane is wrong, at least as it regards the challenge of faith. My reasons are different from some of the other conference participants, I think, and in fact are bolstered by the increasing progress in scientific results.

Philosophical materialism holds that reality in general and the causes of events in particular and physically determined, and our spiritual nature and the possibility of spiritually-caused actions are illusions. But that's not so. As humans, we have a real spiritual nature that is described in anthropological terms as the Law of the Gift. That is, our spirits are most clearly manifested in the action of pouring itself out as a gift to somebody else or some end outside itself.

As my monk friend Peter points out, the music of Beethoven is a spiritual expression of Beethoven the person, in his case, in response to the crucible of suffering. More importantly for this note, his music defies all theories of materialism, and is just as real as the law of electrodynamics.


Even though we all experience this (or something similar) in our own way, the whole thing just seems so squishy compared to the rigors of natural science. But that is where the progress of science comes in. As science progresses, the materialist detritus will be progressively stripped away and bring into clear relief the nature of the spirit, even if spiritual bodies are not subject to direct experiment. In fact, this has started to occur already with the all research into neurology and psychiatry has only served to emphasize that human consciousness is an essential mystery.

And it will also become clear, that the progress of science is not dependent on the materialist arguments of radicals, either philosophers or scientists. More concretely, just because accept the reality of our own ability to love, to believe, or to hold in solidarity with somebody else, doesn't at all mean that the transmission in our car is going to break.

As a side note, Prof Haldane made a couple of comments directly related to Intelligent Design. He said the apologetic from design actually can be made rigorous, but that it was very, very difficult, and the ID folks have certainly not done it (or even gotten very close for that matter). I wholeheartedly agree, and that probably summarizes the situation as succinctly as it is possible to do. This can be taken as criticism of ID, and probably was intended to be. But I actually take it as a net plus for ID, and why I am a qualified enthusiast of it. If the IDers are allowed the academic freedom to pursue their work without political interference, we should hope to see real progress in this area.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Does Natural Selection produce Reason?

There has been a substantial discussion of this on The Corner, starting from a book review by Leon Wieseltier in the New York Times. Noah Millman has a lengthy comment about it on his blog:


"And Derb's right that the faculty of reason and
the religious "instinct" could be - almost certainly are - incommensurate, and
that there is no teeth in the argument that if both are products of natural
selection then both are equally undermined by that genealogy."

I'm not as convinced by this. I think it's more correct to say that neither reason nor religion are falsified by genealogy. But, if we were to take as a hypothesis that religion is merely the product of evolutionary pressure and conclude that therefore it cannot be objectively true, what would that say about reason, if in fact reason were also the product of the same evolutionary pressures?

The gap between them is precisely the reification of reason, that is the reality in truth of its inferences. Derb tries to deny the reification (more particularly, he wants to avoid the whole subject). But if he thought about it I think he would appreciate the his argument actually requires the reification of reason. Ie, we independently accept the validity of reason no matter how it comes to exist in the human mind. Ie reason is "special." Noah Millman, to his credit, appreciates the specialness:

"We don't have to learn, for example, about the
existence of gravity, or friction, or inertia; we are born with hard-wiring
about these things, and we what we learn is how to get along with these forces
as we actually make our way through the world, running and jumping and throwing
baseballs and the like. But we are not born knowing the actual laws of physics,
and the actual laws of physics turn out to differ in far-reaching ways from the
common-sense or "folk" physics we know by instinct. And it is our faculty of
reason that we use to discern the differences, because it is our faculty of
reason that allows us to . . . reason. Or to access Reason, if you prefer.
Reason has a certain pride of place amongst our faculties when we ask questions
about how things are."

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Crunchy Cons

The hot new thing on the Right is Crunchy Cons, by Rod Dreher. National Review has started a blog dedicated to that subject, which has been very lively for the few days it has been in existence. The crux of Dreher’s thesis is that the Right and the Left, are equally ensnared in the vapidity of consumerism. And this has created a substantial but obscure demograhpic of cultural dissenters, people who are politically and religiously conservative, but "look" and "act" like neo-hippies.

I haven’t read the book, though of course that’s not going to stop me from having an opinion on it. Rod’s Crunchy Con thesis is in equal parts frustrating and disappointing. Rod has, almost exclusively, brought to the fore a very important subject, which is why his work has generated the interest that it has. Unfortunately his analysis of the subject is flawed almost to the point of being useless.

Rod is absolutely correct to reject the cult of modern consumerism, which is a very strong siren to resist. Unfortunately, he seems locate this resistance in another, "alternative," set of consumer choices. These choices are often defensible, in some cases even praiseworthy, on their own terms. But, they are not the resistance to consumerism. In fact, it is much more likely that they are another version of the same problem.

The real resistance to consumerism is spiritual, and cultural, and is very difficult to put ino practice, or even to describe directly. It consists in things like the ability to delight in another person for their sake, the priority of culture and family over careerism. If, after diligent application, you have the ability enjoy the presence of another person, it won’t make that much difference if you share that good cheer over McDonald’s hamburgers.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion

I have recently been attending a conference sponsored by Boston College on the philosophical work of John Paul II, which has just concluded. As is typical, the events of the conference consisted mostly in distinguished academics presenting papers and fielding questions. It was the audience which was atypical. There were many non-Catholics, people without any real connection to the academic world such as myself, very young students down to high school in a couple of cases, and quite a few retirees. Why were such an odd variety of people crashing a meeting which would otherwise be a cozy discourse of professional philosophers?

That is probably a little too difficult to answer directly, so let me tell a story of Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion instead. R&M was a movie comedy made a number of years ago about two California women who will shortly attend their 10th high school reunion. The protagonists are not satisfied with their station in life so they have to crash-build false personas that will give them the proper social status. Of course, this plan untimately fails. But this is important, because only when it fails can Romy and Michelle (and by extension us as well) see and appreciate the real depth of the people they used to see every day, friends or otherwise. They are so caught up in their own machinations that it comes as a quite a shock when they meet their high school colleagues ten years later and the real people they see are not at all the same as the projection of their memories.

The point being, that the dork you knew in high school who is now the CEO of IBM or whatever is the same person. And if you couldn't see that possibility for him back in high school, it wasn't because of your lack of perception. In fact, even though it seems counterintuitive, the more accurate your perception was, the worse your appreciation for this person is likely to be. This late-blooming high school colleague just didn't show the parts of himself which constituted the personality or aptitude for success, so you couldn't have seen it. But they were there the whole time.

Too often, the people in our lives seem to be like the toys under the tree on Christmas morning. They are intruiging for a short time, but then we figure them out well enough, and they become boring. This is obviously a poor foundation for social relations, but it's also just false in reality as well. To summarize the work of Karol Wotyla (ie, JPII) and others, the human persion is a metaphysical diamond, he always has a new angle to show you that you haven't seen before. And this is true no matter what you already know about that person or how long you have known him.

If you could walk down the street and every person you see could engage you in new and wonderful ways that you were not aware of or didn't appreciate, life would likely be different and much better. Among other things, JPII could meaningfully address this yearning for engagement that we all share. It is one reason why he was such a compelling figure in life, as well as in death.