Is science exclusively abstract and reductionistic in principle or could it also be integral and creative?
I have treated this topic much more thoroughly in my dissertation but here are a few brief remarks. Any answer will depend on our theory of science, which is itself subject to transformation. It will also depend on which branch of science we take to be representative. For example, if we assume physics as the model, we will arrive at very different conclusions on the matter than if we take ecology. Similarly, Goethean biology will lead us to a very different view of the method and purpose of science than will the outlook of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis or that of molecular biology. Francis Bacon’s edict about “material causes” serves to articulate this basic reductionistic orientation of science. As a whole is made of parts, so the formal cause (causa formalis) is made of the material ones (causas materiales), and natural science differentiated itself from philosophy in the first place by rejecting the study of formal cause in this sense, which is to say, “wholes”. All of this being said, I am very excited and optimistic at the prospect of what the next generation will bring to science. I sense that younger thinkers are naturally beginning to incline towards a much more integral view of life than has been the standard till now.
On the political weaponization of science and the abuse of facts:
I have noticed the same “drift” if not complete reversal in what the labels “Republican” and “Democrat” were understood to mean. It reminds me of swapping book-jackets or something so that the sheath belies the belly of the thing. Perhaps most remarkable to me are the people that have managed to maintain their party affiliation over the last decades despite that this outward fidelity has entailed an inversion of many of their actual professed values. I had a sort of theoretical crisis within the last two years or so that was sparked by my utter inability to make sense of the way certain people were relating to one or another political platform. I simmered in the crucible of unknowing for some time and then suddenly, in a sort of epiphany, I grasped what I take to be the proper theory for understanding the relation that most people maintain to politics. I think it is analogous to the manner in which a sports fan regards his favorite team. They will defend the position with facts, of course, but it is senseless to directly challenge them since their view does not actually establish itself on those facts. I was trying to understand the situation with the presupposition that people cared more about understanding the truth and complexity of a given issue than about signaling and establishing solidarity with a given “tribe.” As a generality (there are many exceptional individuals, of course, who do not fall into this generalization), I was totally wrong. But I think I have corrected my mistake, at least in part, and I feel much more at ease now because political phenomena that before struck me as absurd and unintelligible now can be seen to unfold according to a certain “logic.” It’s funny but getting closer to the truth of something can bring a certain happiness, even if the truth is something one doesn’t exactly like.
Lack of scientific or epistemological certainty alone would not constitute a source of conflict. People could merely content themselves with ambiguity. I think, rather, that the conflict follows from the fact of this uncertainty coupled with the practice that various groups employ of feigning certainty for the sake of weaponizing it against their opponents. They do this under the pretense of advancing the interests of “settled science.” This allows one group to cast anyone who does not share their opinions (which these views cannot be anything more than because, like you said, we are confronted with fundamental lack of certainty around these issues) as enemies and to label them with such epithets as “conspiracy theorists” or “science deniers” etc. Can you see what I am getting at?
While I understand your criticism of the “enlightened centrist,” I am left a little bit surprised by some of your statements. You will forgive me if I ask whether you think it is hypocritical to at once affirm that your certainty is correctly placed while that of someone who sees things differently than you is not. Couldn’t the same biases that mislead the other person into his incorrect views (which, keep in mind, he doesn’t believe to be incorrect) also risk doing the same thing to you? How do you propose to address this? Moreover, the scientific method itself brackets out any moral or ethical elements of a given scenario for the sake of objectivity. For this reason, debates around positive policy, even if they draw on scientific data for support, can never be decided scientifically for the same reason that you cannot hammer nails with a hacksaw. I look forward to hear your thoughts.
I think you brought up an interesting element to this issue in the question of whether “thinking for ourselves” is somewhat of a pretense if all of the conclusions are arrayed before us as predetermined trains of thought. It seems somewhat misleading to describe a situation like this as “thinking for ourselves.” It seems, rather, like a situation in which we decide which authority to accept. I think this is unavoidable given the complexity of the issues we face today and I’m not even sure if we would want to change it because society would cease to function if everyone had to become an expert on every issue; we would have no time to do anything else. I think the real danger is the way in which “facts” and “science” have been weaponized for the sake of advancing one interest or the other. This has the effect of foreclosing any dialogue between people with different viewpoints because, given this departure point, one’s opponent can only be construed as “anti-fact” or a “science denier.” Instead of productive dialogue, in which it is possible to achieve greater understanding and also greater connection (which was the author’s prime emphasis), the situation outlined above serves to foster increased polarization and self-righteous conviction in one’s own views. Does this seem right?
I think hallmarks of productive dialogue are that the interlocutors be willing to confront issues for the sake of understanding them rather than being right, and that none of them expects to win an argument by levying the accusation of “science-denier” or “conspiracy theorist” etc. at the one who does not share his or her view. What do you think of this?
I appreciated your view about arguments, and I would like to add to your view that it is better to submit oneself to the quest for truth and for understanding than to the urge to “prevail” or to win. Put another way, “to win” does not mean to force your opponent to agree with you, but rather that both of you together have attained to a greater vision of the truth. You observed that “we must enter discussions and arguments with the intent to listen.” I think this is right, but the reason it is right is because listening is in service of the higher good of understanding or grasping the truth, which in turn is in service of the Good itself. I am just like you in that I grew up without any connection to religious doctrines. In some ways I regret this because it had the effect of foreclosing an entire mode of cognition to me for a large part of my life. At the same time, I must be grateful in a certain sense because it has provided me with the possibility of approaching religion in perfect freedom and without any external influence or filial compulsion. I can attest that if you are able to grasp the hierarchy of value inherent in, and disclosed by, Plato’s “idea of the Good,” then you have won through to something like the blueprint for religion per se. Religion encodes—in theory, in myth, and in practice—structures of essential value which are always measured in respect to an absolute standard (i.e. the summum bonum, the Good, God, the Dharma, etc.).
On Adam’s naming of the animals and the Midrash that presents the angels as unable to do this:
In respect to your comment on the scene from Genesis: do you think it is related to the notion that “man is made in the image of God”? Incidentally, the Latin Vulgate translation reads “ad imago Dei,” which is better translated as “towards the image of God” rather than “in” it. This indicates a process of evolution that plays out in history and hints at the radical departure that the Semitic tradition initiated from all other cultures, which tended towards a cyclical and not a linear concept of time. In any case, “creation” and “freedom” are two attributes that are often ascribed to God and, once we have grasped the fundamentally creative nature of naming, it seems to fit neatly with the notion that even the angels were at a loss for what to do when confronted with the scenario that the Midrash describes. The angels are bound by their nature and essence, as it were, while man is free, for good or for ill. As to the line from the song that you quoted: it immediately invokes in me the Promethean archetype and the power of technology that it represents. This archetype is somewhat more difficult to discern in the Hebrew tradition but Cain actually embodies it. He is described as a “tiller of the soil” in contrast to his brother Abel, who was a nomad and a shepherd. Cain is understood as the builder of cities and the prototype of Faust and other scientists. Again, this potential for creativity and freedom is a fact and whether it is used for good or for evil must be determined on a case-by-case basis. What do you think of this?
Regarding the following statement:
I believe there is no true cause or reason we can ever know about, even if such a thing exists. If reason and causes exist, much of them exist beyond our realm of comprehension.
I think most people would agree with this sentiment and it seems prima facie very plausible. But I wonder how you can claim to know something is beyond your comprehension. If it is really beyond comprehension, then this could not be known. By the same token, to know it is beyond comprehension in this way implies some knowledge of it already. Finally, if the ultimate secret of this universe is really unknown to us, it might be right in front of our noses, or closer than we are to ourselves, and we merely do not recognise it. What do you think about this?
On the significant difference between the Mosaic and Johannine accounts of Creation:
I would like to suggest an analogy that may help structure an attempt to distinguish the two creation accounts. If I reflect on this very act of composition, I can distinguish two elements. (1) First is the ideal and semantic content of what one wishes to express. This could also be called “the meaning” or even “the logos” of the text. Perhaps I have given away the essence of my suggestion already with the invocation of that term, since you may recall that the first line of the John Gospel is:
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος
En archē ēn ho Lógos
“In the beginning was the Word (Logos)”.
Second (2) is the sequential transposition of one’s idea-meaning-logos into lexemes. I wrote “lexemes” instead of “letters” or “syllables” or “orthographical units” because the lex in “lexeme” is the same as the log in “logos” and also the lect in “intel-lect.” Returning to this process of transposition from meaning to sign: notice that it happens as a series in which one thing follows another. It is a temporal event. The meaning or logos as such, however, is not a temporal event. The Mosaic account of Creation depicts the temporal priority of God to the cosmos. The Johannine account depicts the logical priority of God to the cosmos. Analogously and as a fractal of this greater pattern, the existence of this very reflection depends on two elements of creation that must have been prior to its composition in the same two senses that I have outlined above. First, this text depends on the series of letters and words having been assembled in the proper sequence. That process necessarily comes before the text in time and it is complete with the text’s existence. Simultaneously, however, the email also depends on the fact of language. Language had to pre-exist the text in time, but more significant to the illustration of this point, it had to pre-exist the text in principle. This is a logical priority and, unlike temporal priority, it is never complete but rather continues to ground the being of the text as long as it exists. In the same way, a light source may or may not pre-exist a shadow in time but it necessarily pre-exists the shadow in principle as long as there is a shadow to speak of. Similarly, the present text is contingent on logos; if logos were done away with, so too would this sentence.
On science and the threshold of paradigms:
You have correctly traversed the boundary of the contemporary scientific paradigm and entered into the sphere of metaphysics. You may recall Kuhn’s observation that a given paradigm serves to delimit the scope of what qualifies as a scientific question and the origin of origins is one. In my experience, one is better off asking a theologian about the origin of the universe than a scientist because even if you don’t agree with the theologian’s premises, at least he will understand the question and treat it with adequate seriousness.
Aristotle described metaphysics as the study of “being qua being,” or “being as such.” Physics and the sciences, by contrast, study beings, or particular categories or aspects of being. In contemporary usage, however, “metaphysics” is often employed as a term of dismissal and even derision.
I want to add a very important element to our contemplation of this subject. It is this: not only is it necessary to account for the beginning of the causal series that we can presently observe in everything that changes, but one must also account for the creation of causality as such. Otherwise one has only swept the difficulties under the rug and reserved a bona fide explanation for later. I have pointed to ways in which ostensibly comprehensive scientific accounts, like life through evolution and consciousness through neurology, have totally ignored this element.
We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.
—Pierre Simon Laplace articulating “Laplace’s Demon”, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities
Thomas Aquinas built off Aristotle’s physics in the Middle Ages to show how things and people become more fully “real” and “actual” when they are understood; when they are created anew in us. It sounds strange juxtaposed against the way we usually conceptualise the world as the totality of physical objects in Newtonian space, but Aquinas’ vision also rings true in the soul’s depths. I think that encounters with art and beautiful things serve to reveal this relationship. What would be left of “the world” with no one and nothing to experience it?
I think it is a very important distinction you have brought our attention to between cause and reason. I am tempted to connect these to aitia and logos, respectively. Does that seem right? I think you have interpreted reason in a psychological way and rightly pointed out that many things seem to happen without any discernible reason. It leads me to wonder, however, how we could distinguish between (a) things that happen for no reason and (b) things that happen for reason that we do not know of. This problem has been neatly summarized by the phrase “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” What do you think of this?
“Citizens” versus “consumers” in the res publica:
You have touched on a number of issues that lead right to the heart of political and social philosophy. I am reminded of an exchange between Socrates and Thrasymachus at the beginning of the Republic dialogue. I have excerpted part of it and appended it to below. Socrates is disputing Thrasymachus’ claim that “justice is the interest of the stronger” and that rulers rule for the sake of their own profit and thus rule best when they are the least just. Imagine that we exchange the term “ruler” for “citizen.” In that connection, I think you will find the excerpt below to be very thought-provoking. Socrates argues that just as a physician practices medicine not for his own sake, or for the sake of profit, but for the sake of his patient, so a ruler rules for the sake of his subjects. Socrates says that we should not think of the ruler as motivated by “the carrot” of profit but by “the stick” of the prospect of being ruled by a lesser person, which is to say, someone who would seek to rule for his own benefit and not for that of his subjects.It occurs to me that just as Thrasymachus seems to be conflating “injustice” with “justice” “tyrant” and “ruler,” so many Americans today have been brainwashed by the prosperity gospel with the effect that we have lost the concept of “citizen” altogether and substituted it with “consumer.”
Incidentally, the true Gospel is the inverse of the prosperity gospel in a thousand ways. I am reminded, for example, of the scene of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in the Johannine account of the last supper, and of Jesus’ rebuke of Judas after her criticizes Magdalena on the pretext that she could have sold the ointment with which she had anointed Jesus’ hair and used the money to feed the poor: “Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this.” (John 12:7) The first scene demonstrates that service is the essence of “dominion” (i.e. where Adam “took,” Jesus “offered”) and the second that there are more important things in life than material economy.
I am also reminded by your reflection of President Kennedy’s famous words in his Inaugural Address in 1961 before he was assassinated by the CIA several years later: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Foremost, while I agree with the spirit of your statement that we should see it as a pleasure and an obligation to pay taxes because we are contributing to the welfare of our society or res publica, the unfortunate truth seems to be that over the last 70 years—at least since Eisenhower’s notorious Farewell Address in which he warned of the “military-industrial complex—an increasing proportion of our taxes have been shunted away from the res publica and co-opted to finance projects which no good person could condone. Another objection, which I only make in a half-hearted way because I don’t entirely buy the premises of it, is that nothing stops Americans from contributing to charitable causes of their own initiative and that this is preferable to bureaucratic deployment of charitable resources because it is more person, more adaptable, more sensitive to context, etc. and by taxing people, they are less inclined and less equipped to donate in this way.
I look forward to hear your thoughts. Please find the appendix below.
Plato, Republic, Book 1:
But is the art of medicine or any other art faulty or deficient in any quality in the same way that the eye may be deficient in sight or the ear fail of hearing, and therefore requires another art to provide for the interests of seeing and hearing—has art in itself, I say, any similar liability to fault or defect, and does every art require another supplementary art to provide for its interests, and that another and another without end? Or have the arts to look only after their own interests? Or have they no need either of themselves or of another?— having no faults or defects, they have no need to correct them, either by the exercise of their own art or of any other; they have only to consider the interest of their subject-matter. For every art remains pure and faultless while remaining true—that is to say, while perfect and unimpaired. Take the words in your precise sense, and tell me whether I am not right.
Then medicine does not consider the interest of medicine, but the interest of the body? True, he said.
Nor does the art of horsemanship consider the interests of the art of horsemanship, but the interests of the horse; neither do any other arts care for themselves, for they have no needs; they care only for that which is the subject of their art?
True, he said.
But surely, Thrasymachus, the arts are the superiors and rulers of their own subjects?
To this he assented with a good deal of reluctance.
Then, I said, no science or art considers or enjoins the interest of the stronger or superior, but only the interest of the subject and weaker?
He made an attempt to contest this proposition also, but finally acquiesced.
Then, I continued, no physician, in so far as he is a physician, considers his own good in what he prescribes, but the good of his patient; for the true physician is also a ruler having the human body as a subject, and is not a mere money-maker; that has been admitted?
And the pilot likewise, in the strict sense of the term, is a ruler of sailors and not a mere sailor?
That has been admitted.
And such a pilot and ruler will provide and prescribe for the interest of the sailor who is under him, and not for his own or the ruler’s interest?
He gave a reluctant ‘Yes.’
Then, I said, Thrasymachus, there is no one in any rule who, in so far as he is a ruler, considers or enjoins what is for his own interest, but always what is for the interest of his subject or suitable to his art; to that he looks, and that alone he considers in everything which he says and does.
When we had got to this point in the argument, and every one saw that the definition of justice had been completely upset, Thrasymachus, instead of replying to me, said: Tell me, Socrates, have you got a nurse?
Why do you ask such a question, I said, when you ought rather to be answering?
Because she leaves you to snivel, and never wipes your nose: she has not even taught you to know the shepherd from the sheep.
What makes you say that? I replied.
Because you fancy that the shepherd or neatherd fattens or tends the sheep or oxen with a view to their own good and not to the good of himself or his master; and you further imagine that the rulers of states, if they are true rulers, never think of their subjects as sheep, and that they are not studying their own advantage day and night. Oh, no; and so entirely astray are you in your ideas about the just and unjust as not even to know that justice and the just are in reality another’s good; that is to say, the interest of the ruler and stronger, and the loss of the subject and servant; and injustice the opposite; for the unjust is lord over the truly simple and just: he is the stronger, and his subjects do what is for his interest, and minister to his happiness, which is very far from being their own. Consider further, most foolish Socrates, that the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust. First of all, in private contracts: wherever the unjust is the partner of the just you will find that, when the partnership is dissolved, the unjust man has always more and the just less. Secondly, in their dealings with the State: when there is an income-tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income; and when there is anything to be received the one gains nothing and the other much. Observe also what happens when they take an office; there is the just man neglectinghis affairs and perhaps suffering other losses, and getting nothing out of the public, because he is just; moreover he is hated by his friends and acquaintance for refusing to serve them in unlawful ways. But all this is reversed in the case of the unjust man. I am speaking, as before, of injustice on a large scale in which the advantage of the unjust is most apparent; and my meaning will be most clearly seen if we turn to that highest form of injustice in which the criminal is the happiest of men, and the sufferers or those who refuse to do injustice are the most miserable—that is to say tyranny, which by fraud and force takes away the property of others, not little by little but wholesale; comprehending in one, things sacred as well as profane, private and public; for which acts of wrong, if he were detected perpetrating any one of them singly, he would be punished and incur great disgrace—they who do such wrong in particular cases are called robbers of temples, and man-stealers and burglars and swindlers and thieves. But when a man besides taking away the money of the citizens has made slaves of them, then, instead of these names of reproach, he is termed happy and blessed, not only by the citizens but by all who hear of his having achieved the consummation of injustice. For mankind censure injustice, fearing that they may be the victims of it and not because they shrink from committing it. And thus, as I have shown, Socrates, injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice; and, as I said at first, justice is the interest of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man’s own profit and interest.
And the art of payment has the special function of giving pay: but we do not confuse this with other arts, any more than the art of the pilot is to be confused with the art of medicine, because the health of the pilot may be improved by a sea voyage. You would not be inclined to say, would you, that navigation is the art of medicine, at least if we are to adopt your exact use of language?
Or because a man is in good health when he receives pay you would not say that the art of payment is medicine?
I should not.
Nor would you say that medicine is the art of receiving pay because a man takes fees when he is engaged in healing?
And for this reason, I said, money and honour have no attraction for them; good men do not wish to be openly demanding payment for governing and so to get the name of hirelings, nor by secretly helping themselves out of the public revenues to get the name of thieves. And not being ambitious they do not care about honour. Wherefore necessity must be laid upon them, and they must be induced to serve from the fear of punishment. And this, as I imagine, is the reason why the forwardness to take office, instead of waiting to be compelled, has been deemed dishonourable. Now the worst part of the punishment is that he who refuses to rule is liable to be ruled by one who is worse than himself. And the fear of this, as I conceive, induces the good to take office, not because they would, but because they cannot help—not under the idea that they are going to have any benefit or enjoyment themselves, but as a necessity, and because they are not able to commit the task of ruling to any one who is better than themselves, or indeed as good.