Miscellany: theory, evidence, and observation and commentaries on various issues and parables

On theory, evidence, and observation:

You noted that many people were skeptical of the heliocentric theory at the beginning. This is partly true but it can tend to obscure the historical facts through an over-simplification. Aristarchus was a Greek philosopher living in the third century B.C. who had advocated a heliocentric theory but it was summarily dismissed on the grounds that you noted. Namely, all that is necessary to reject the notion that the sun is still is to look up into the sky and watch the it sail through the heavens in a great arc day after day. When Copernicus formulated his own version of the heliocentric theory, it was actually his own fear of humiliation by his fellow astronomers that prevented him from publishing it because his heliocentric model was unable to rival the geocentric one in respect to empirical predictions. Indeed he held out on publishing his theory until he was on his deathbed in spite of importunate requests by officials from the Catholic Church (Cardinal Nikolaus von Schönberg, Archbishop of Capua, “Letter to Copernicus.” http://www.webexhibits.org/calendars/year-text-Copernicus.html), who conveniently saw the sun as a symbol for God. The reactionary impulse from the Catholic Church against heliocentrism actually had its cause not in the theory per se, but in a great tide of conservatism that swept over the Church one generation later as a result of the threat of the Protestant Reformation. Rick Tarnas’ The Passion of the Western Mind does an exemplary job in illuminating this evolution in the Church’s position as a result of internal conflict.

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This is the astonishing discovery we can make: that we look at the same thing but we see something different and so it is not the same thing anymore after all. In some ways, what we see is a reflection or projection of our knowledge-understanding onto an external object, and this understanding is constantly developing. Do you see what I am getting at here?

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Here is something to think about: how would we recognize the correct theory in this case if all observations and information is identical, as it must be? Is thinking of “correctness” in these terms even the right way to go about it? In other words, is there a correct theory?

Here is Stephen Hawking’s opinion from his 2010 book The Grand Design:

Although it is not uncommon for people to say that Copernicus proved Ptolemy wrong, that is not true…one can use either picture as a model of the universe…the equations of motion are much simpler in the frame of reference in which the sun is at rest…If there are two models that both agree with observation, then one cannot say that one is more real than another.

What do you think of this?

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Another excerpt from Hawking’s book: 

A few years ago the city council of Monza, Italy, barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved bowls. The measure’s sponsor explained the measure in part by saying that it is cruel to keep a fish in a bowl with curved sides because, gazing out, the fish would have a distorted view of reality. But how do we know we have the true, undistorted picture of reality?

The goldfish view is not the same as our own, but goldfish could still formulate scientific laws governing the motion of the objects they observe outside their bowl.

I’m glad you brought up the example of the fish. Do you think that the curved fishbowl would prevent a fish from theorizing? Obviously, the fact that it is a fish would prevent it from theorizing, foremost. But I think this presents a very useful example of the errors that thinking about cognition and perception in a naïve way can lead into. If it is imagined that we see with our eyes, then a distortion in our perceptual apparatus will cause a distortion in our understanding. But if we can recognize that we see through our eyes, with our intelligence, then I think that if the specific sensory stimuli that we receive are altered in some way, it will have very little effect on our perception, provided that the alteration is uniform through time. An example of a similar phenomenon can be adduced from the fact that we are already correcting the inversion of the exterior image by our lens as it falls on our retina, as well as a thousand other things. Moreover, as I tried to detail in the first lecture, the “camera model” of vision is simply incorrect, since there is no external light in our visual cortices (they are in the back of the head, in case you are wondering—doesn’t this remind you of Plato’s Cave?). Can you “see” what I am getting at?

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Thank you for submitting this exemplary reflection on the various models of the solar system. I happen to share your skepticism about the Big Bang theory. It relies on many assumptions that demand employing the theory itself as evidence for what the evidence is supposed to demonstrate. This is called principio principii, or “begging the question,” as we will explore next week when we investigate the topic of fallacies.

What you expressed about theories in general is an insight that I am hoping to lead everyone towards. Namely, a theory is a “way of looking,” and evidence is anything that can be seen in light of that way of looking. Do you see what I mean here?

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I appreciated the way you listed various bullet points in support of each theory. I am curious if you think that scientific discoveries have disproven the geocentric model or if there have merely offered alternative frameworks of ordering and conceptualizing the observations that we make.

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On the Parable of the Good Samaritan:

First, to set the context: a lawyer has inquired of Jesus how a person may inherit eternal life. Jesus answers by saying that a person must love God (vertical) and love his neighbor (horizontal). The lawyer then litigiously “cross-examines” Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?” The Parable of the Good Samaritan appears as Jesus’ response to the lawyer’s quibble. Thus, this parable, like others that we have encountered, functions by lending imaginal body to a principle. 

I think you hit on at least a part of what is at stake when you observed that “what they look like or who they are” are not relevant criteria to determine who is my neighbor.* A fortiori, it also doesn’t matter the social position or apparent authority of the person (i.e. the priest ignored the injured man) and nor should it matter the tribal or political affiliation of him (i.e. the Levite also walked to the other side of the road). Both of these points, in my estimation, bear profound reflection in the moment in history that we presently inhabit, in which these divisions appear to be becoming all the more salient. The fact that the Samaritan, whom the Jews would have considered to be a gentile, showed himself to grasp Jesus’ teachings more thoroughly than the religious authorities or those who shared his bloodline is meant to emphasise the departure of the strain of Judaism that would soon become Christianity from its orthodox form (i.e. Jesus did not preach a departure from Mosaic Law but rather a fulfillment, perfection, or completion of it). 

I think it bears emphasis that many of the regions in the world that have been most keenly associated with Christianity over the past millennia do not share in the Semitic bloodline of King David from which Jesus was said to be the “firstfruits.” Europe, for instance, during the course of the Middle Ages, adopted as their prophet and saviour, someone from a distant quarter of the Earth (i.e. Palestine). I believe this is among the first historical examples of a universalist religious impulse of this sort, since every religion that I know of up until that point had been inextricably wedded to ethnicity, geography, and tribal culture. Buddhism soon followed Christianity in this respect through its analogous separation out of Hinduism.

You also brought up a number of times the observation that many descriptive elements are left out of the parable. I think this illustrates an important principle that could be called “streamlining.” To wit, we tend to remember essential elements of a story or history while, at the same time, accidental elements of it tend to fall away. It is somewhat analogous to the mechanism that is believed to be responsible for the descent of different species through natural selection. For this reason, we can assume that any element that is included in a story has some significance and, by the same token, we can assume that inquiry over the particularities of elements that have been left out is mostly idle speculation. This principle can actually function with such earnestness that historical episodes are invented to lend expression to elements of an individuality or episode that were not originally recorded. George Washington and the cherry tree, for instance, is a mythic historical episode that was fabricated to convey a specific character trait of our first president (i.e. his honesty and integrity). As an example of what I take to be idle speculation are all of the disputations over aspects of the historical Jesus. If Jesus’ skin colour etc. had been important, then we can be confident that it would have been preserved in at least one of the Gospel accounts. 

Finally, you observed that perhaps the reason that people ignored the injured man is that they simply assumed someone else would take responsibility for him. It reminds me of the very well-known episode in New York in the sixties known as “The Murder of Kitty Genovese” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Kitty_Genovese). Is this principle what you had in mind?

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On a comparison of Google to God:

Thank you for putting this very interesting comparison before us. Your presentation sparked a thousand different thoughts in me but I will rein myself in and focus on a couple. 

I know that the intent of your presentation was not to compare God and Google per se, but rather only in respect of illuminating, by analogy, how God could do many things at once. Still, the comparison having been established, it invites further exploration. One attribute of God—at least in the Christian tradition, from which I understand that you are drawing for your view on this—seems characteristically lacking and that is God’s basic beneficence and even love for all of his creatures. Not only is he all-powerful, all-present, all-knowing, etc. but also all-loving. In fact, as John describes it in his first epistle, God just is the principle of love in which we may each partake insofar as we give and receive love in our own lives:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. (4:7-8)

So just as a candle, the sun, and an incandescent lightbulb all draw on the fact of light as such to shine, so in this view, “love comes from God.” In light of this, what do we see when we look at Google? It’s a very interesting vignette that Google quietly removed its slogan “Don’t be evil” from its brand a number of years ago. 

Again, with the caveat that you are not exactly trying to characterise the Christian understanding of God, I am moved to comment on your explication of “necessary being.” The traditional understanding of this phrase does not refer to the kind of instrumental utility that you are describing as in “I need x for the sake of y.” Instead, the idea of necessary existence is meant to contrast God, as a creator with everything else that exists, as creatures. As a cause is necessary for the existence of its effect but an effect is not necessary for the existence of its cause, so God is understood to be the cause of Being as such, and all beings are understood to be contingent on God; effects of his prime causation. Because beings exist but they do not do so of necessity (i.e. they do not cause themselves to exist and it is obvious that any specific being could have not existed), it is necessary to posit some principle cause to explain the fact that the universe and all the beings in it should exist at all. This is what is meant by God’s necessary existence. 

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On “the Parable of the Secret Gardener”:

I think the parable you have selected is very helpful in illustrating the reciprocal charges of “superstition” that are liable to be levied against the opposing side in debates about God, for instance. 

From the empirical scientific standpoint, the believer is superstitious to believe in a being whose presence cannot be apprehended through the senses in the way that other beings can be. From the believer’s standpoint, the superstition lies with the one who believes in the unproven axiom that anything that exists must be perceptible to the senses. Viewed from outside, the debate arrives at a clear impasse in its quest for a conclusion as a result of failure to arrive at shared premises from which to begin.

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On lying:

It seems to me to have astonishing implications that only human beings can lie. I know that certain animals have evolved mechanisms of deception. I am thinking of moths whose coloration resembles giant snake-eyes, or cuckoos, which lay their eggs in the nests of other species. But these are not examples of lying. You did not define lying but I think most people would understand something like “speaking out of the deliberate intention to deceive.” With a generous construal of “speaking,” the instances I gave above may be examples of “speaking out of the intention to deceive” but they all lack the essential element of  deliberation that makes lying what it is. A being has to be able to choose between speaking truthfully or falsely and opt for the latter for that being to be lying. A bird who fools other birds into rearing its chicks is deceiving them but it is not lying to them. Does this distinction seem correct?

A philosopher called Harry Frankfurt actually wrote a very famous pamphlet called “On Bullshit”in which he distinguished “lying” from “bullshitting.” Essentially, the difference consists again more or less in whether the deliberate intention to deceive is the motive that drives the speech act. To lie, a person must attend to the truth and then deliberately intend to misrepresent it. To bullshit, a person need not attend to the truth at all. Instead, he can untether himself from the truth entirely and merely lend expression to his postures or inclinations. Can you think of any other distinctions like this that might be worth making? I can think of the phrase “white lie” which is used to indicate that the speech act, despite being a deliberate intention to misrepresent the truth, was done without intent to harm the other person. 

Lying is something like a paragon case to distinguish two basic theories of ethics. One, which tries to conceptualize rightness and wrongness according to their profit by attempting to predict and measure the expected consequences of any given action, would clearly allow for lying provided that the outcome of telling a lie would seem to increase net “utility” or usefulness (usually thought of as net pleasure or net happiness). Another somewhat antithetical theory would view the deliberate intent to deceive someone through speech as fundamentally wrong in principle because the motive inherent in telling a lie controverts the purpose of speech itself. A lie might seem comparatively innocuous but from this point of view, it serves to undermine the very basis of speech altogether. An instant’s reflection will reveal that speech only functions because we expect that the speaker’s motive is sincere. As a result, it is regarded as categorically wrong to lie and not merely hypothetically so. I hope we will be able to briefly explore these theories of ethics later in our course.

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On contentiousness in politics:

Like you said, it is clearly a volatile issue. I also share your sense that the negative aspects of political rivalry have intensified in my lifetime and not in a linear way. Instead it feels as though the increase has been geometric so that every year is twice as bad as the one that preceded it. That being said, I am sometimes skeptical of my ability to make this kind of judgement because I lack the perspective of a lived experience that encompasses more than a couple decades, and moreover I am also changing during this time so I would be concerned that me trying to measure it would be like a clock whose numbers spun around the clockface at the same time as the hands, trying to keep time. For instance, this episode is worth considering for context. https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Caning_of_Senator_Charles_Sumner.htm I am not aware of anyone being beaten with a can on the Senate floor during my lifetime. 

After listening to your presentation, I am left with the question of how we could improve the situation, in concrete terms. Do you have any ideas?

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On a parable about a creditor:

Many questions come to mind for me in respect to how to understand it. I wonder, for instance, whether the merchant knew when he set out that he may not succeed in locating his debtor. Clearly this small datum would fundamentally recast the sense of the entire parable.

The merchant strikes me as somewhat obtuse to begin with because his success in locating the debtor did not influence the cost of the river passage one way or the other so the best he could have done is compensated the cost of his journey by reclaiming the money he was owed, but this still would not have recovered the time he spent. In fact, it is not clear that anything can reclaim spent time, or that the notion of “spending” and “reclaiming” time even makes sense. It strikes me that a way to ensure that no time is ever “lost” is to avoid continually projecting our locus of value into future conditions because “tomorrow never comes,” as it were. 

One final question that I will pose because I think that the answer to it would largely define the way we can understand a parable like this is whether we should read it as a question of whether it was the right thing for the merchant to set out to begin with, or whether the crucial moment was his decision to cross the river. Crossing a river easily lends itself to a symbolic interpretation. In fact, the somewhat common phrase “crossing the Rubicon” refers to a river the Julius Caesar took the decision to cross and thereby set into motion the sequence of events that led to the end of the Roman Republic and his assassination by the conspirators Brutus and Cassius on the Ides of March. Returning to my question of the critical moment in the parable: in the first case, it would seem to lead toward a more abstract consideration as the the value of money etc. while in the latter case it would seem to steer our interpretation more towards questions along the lines of “the sunk-cost fallacy,” in which a person becomes so invested in a particular outcome that he fails to recognise the point at which it would advantageous to abandon his bid to achieve it. 

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On wholes and parts:

That is a great distinction you made between bottom up and top down thinking. I would like to add the notion of life. Specifically, in considering living things versus inanimate objects, it is clear that the latter can be assembled “bottom up,” by combining parts, but the former cannot, and if they are disassembled, they are dismembered and therefore cease to exist as living things. Perhaps the difference between a body and a corpse captures this distinction, or a butterfly and a specimen.

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