Monday, March 31, 2014

Absolute Time and Space

Currently we are being treated to a remake of Carl Sagan's classic series Cosmos, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. (Interesting that with it's agnostic/atheist slant, it's on the Fox Network.) The latest installment explains Einstein's relativity. It's a good explanation insofar as it goes, but then we're informed that time and space are completely relative.

That's the usual scientific line, and there's something to it, but from a broader, fully human perspective, it's garbage.

Just from the point of view of established science, it's wrong. In fact Dr. Tyson's own narrative takes for granted that time is not relative: if time were completely relative, it would make no sense to quote an age of the universe. Or distances for that matter. Or even a speed for our galaxy or local group of galaxies.

The age of the universe is measured from the instant of the "Bang" (a misnomer since it wasn't an explosion in the conventional sense of a pressure wave expanding into anything). The absolute standard of rest is the frame in which the cosmic microwave background radiation is isotropic (not red- or blue-shifted in any direction). The proper velocity of our galaxy is relative to this frame of rest. These absolute measures are relative to the beginning of the universe, the creation.

Certainly in isolation the locomotion of matter has no absolute frame of reference, because there is nothing outside it. In concentrating on matter in isolation, physics as a methodological assumption neglects the absolute boundary or beginning: the horizon is the experimenter or observer.

The fundamental shortcoming of science that we always forget is that it flattens the universe beneath human power and takes matter out of its context, which is form—form imposed not only by human agency, but also given by nature and nature's God.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Darwinism and Amoralism

I went to a thought-provoking talk excellently presented by Professor Kenneth Miller, the Brown-University cell biologist who testified in the Dover trial on teaching intelligent design in public schools. As you may know, he's a Roman Catholic Christian, and the title of his talk was "Darwin, God and Design: Is There Room for God in the Evolutionary Process?".

The answer to the question, in short, was No: God is transcendent, so it's wrong to think of God as requiring "space" (literal or figurative) in his creation. A great point that definitely needs to be made, but one that doesn't do complete justice to our Creator, I'm afraid. God is primarily transcendent, of course, but he's also immanent: the saying goes that he's closer to each of us than we are to ourselves, so it would seem he could act within us. Plus, there's plenty of "room" for divine action in the "randomness" of the mutation that Darwinism says provides the novelty for the natural selection mill. Randomness in modern science basically means, "We don't know." And this room is not a gap, as in "God in the gaps," because even if one came up with a story to describe the particular mechanical interactions that caused what mutations occurred (the kinds of causes modern science in fact uses to explain), it could not in principle eliminate all meta-stories about an intelligent agent coordinating and arranging apparently natural secondary causes (mechanical and otherwise) for a larger goal.1 Every scientific theory will always have boundary conditions but none will ever be able to fix those of the wild, wide world.

Be that as it may, that's not the main subject of this post. Mainly I wanted to discuss the problem of morality in the Darwinian account of nature. Dr. Miller admitted (1) that there is a continuity between apes and men in the fossil record and (2) that we can see in the human genome that we are still evolving. Primarily because of (1), it would seem that it's not clear to which creatures the natural moral laws applies. As Dr. Miller himself put it, if we came across a tribe of Australopithecus afarensis in some remote jungle, whether we should treat them as human or merely as a respected non-human relative is not clear.

Primarily because of (2) it would seem that the natural moral law is not fixed. If human nature is not fixed, then shouldn't the natural moral law that grows from that nature also be unfixed? If humans don't breed true, who's to say a human couple's offspring is necessarily human?

David Stove (an atheist), in his incisive, often funny, critique of human evolution, Darwinian Fairy Tales, wonders what natural selection can even mean with regard to man in light of the fact that the term was coined from "artificial selection," the process by which humans breed better non-human animals. (Is the way we humans pick our mates natural or artificial?) If evolution is a blind process, then why can't human beings lend an intelligent guiding hand? Why not engage in eugenics?

Discussion

With regard to randomness, I've written in the past. A further point to be made is that Darwinism, child of the mechanical philosophy and its biological consummation, explains using only extrinsic causes. What's so often missed is the interiority of fully natural causation. Why couldn't the evolution of organisms be determined from within (intrinsically), by the natures of the organisms themselves, instead of by an abstract Nature? This sort of immanent intelligence would also show as "randomness."3

With regard to man, it first needs to be noted that the timeline of human descent relies on very little actual hard evidence: the fossils would fit in the back of a pickup truck.2 Archaeologists see a continuity of evolution, but based only on bones and some DNA. We don't have the living creatures to see. We see even in dogs vast differences in appearance within one species. We can also observe (say, between placental predatory cats and their marsupial analogues), similarities of form between two utterly different species. The bones are not the creature, nor is the DNA. DNA is simply a library of blueprints for all the proteins the body can possibly produce and of possible regulations for producing them; these possibilities only come to life when in the context of the proteins that limit the possibilities and actualize the cell, which is why proteomics is the big field these days. People talk about our sharing 96% of our DNA with chimpanzees. Yet beer is close to 100% water and manifestly not the same thing as water—try claiming to the judge in your DWI case that the beer you drank was the same as water.

The only thing that could truly delineate between man and his non-human ancestors is an examination of the full creatures, especially their behavior. Questions like, "Do they have language?", "What is their conception of time?", "Can they conceptualize the natures of things?", "Can they understand right and wrong?" have to be among the tests for humanity.4

Still, Darwinism admits of devolution as well as evolution (or rather abolishes species altogether). So while it is clear that demanding that each individual (esp. newborns, the ill, the handicapped) have such characteristics is unreasonable, it is not clear how one can preserve the humanity of everyone we regard as human without the assumption that species (or at least humans) breed true. More to come on scientific reasons this assumption might not be a mere assumption...


Notes

1. One questioner astutely asked Dr. Miller how his view was theistic not merely deistic. It must be admitted that there is a large gap between what Dr. Miller admitted as miracles (amounting to 'inexplicable' goodness in human action) and an event manifestly supernatural, like the Resurrection.

2. Cf. the October 18 NPR story "New Fossil May Trim Branches of Human Evolution" in which fossils of a mere five individuals are apparently upsetting established notions of the field. Also cf. reconstruction of a fossil tooth in Tom Weller's hilarious Science Made Stupid. (WARNING: This may be the funniest book of all time.)

3. As in Physics II.8.199b26-29:

"It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe the agent deliberating. Art does not deliberate. If the ship-building art were in the wood, it would produce the same results by nature."

Aquinas comments:

"Hence it is clear that nature is nothing but a certain kind of art, i.e., the divine art, impressed upon things, by which these things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if the shipbuilder were able to give to timbers that by which they would move themselves to take the form of the ship" (Commentary on the Physics, no. 268).

4. But also, "Are they physiologically suited to such activities?" Swift's talking horses are clearly absurd horses for their supposed ability to carry things with their limbs. Cf. Erwin W. Straus, 'The Upright Posture', in Phenomenological Psychology, (London: Tavistock, 1966) 141.


David Stove, Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution (Encounter Books, 2013), 232.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Modesty Is Simply Thoughtfulness

Huffington Post is promoting a story about Mark Frauenfelder's daughter being told by a TSA agent to cover up. According to Frauenfelder, the agent said,

"You're only 15, cover yourself!"

The latter link includes the single public photo of how she was dressed. Of course it was unprofessional of the agent to remark on anything personal. But except for that, it's about time someone says something to young women who dress revealingly. Even in that one photo in which she's "covered up," it's clear that the leggings don't leave much of the shape of the girl's lower half to the imagination. We also might suspect that the photo is not exactly what the agent saw: it's clear that the top is the kind that tends to ride up revealing the navel, and we can't see (Deo gratias) how revealing the top might be close-up despite its apparent thickness here. So we shouldn't rush to judge the remark based on a single photo.

Of course, the subsequent reaction is typical of our times: that the agent's remark was creepy, that it's up to a woman how she dresses, that they want to force women to wear burkhas, etc.

A while ago, a friend posted a story about women protesting rape and sexual harassment. Any civilized person has to agree wholeheartedly: men are fully responsible for their actions and need to control themselves, regardless of the context. But then the photo showed the women dressed scantily, immodestly. Clearly these women weren't getting a deeper point.

People these days forget that we dress not only for ourselves, but also for others, to ease our common life together: we dress decently to make others comfortable. Men are naturally attracted to women's bodies; more visibility means more attraction. That this was something that could only be controlled with effort used to be a fact widely understood. It's just in the nature of men and women, how we're put together. (In fact we owe our continued existence as a species to this aspect of our nature.)

In saner days women dressed modestly to make life easier for men. But no more. I think our modern attitude comes from two ideas that stand in tension with each other:

  1. We think of ourselves as entirely rational, autonomous agents, transcending the gross corporeal world.
  2. We identify ourselves with our inclinations and desires (and fail to acknowledge that we can resist our desires, and that some should be resisted).

From these two sides of Enlightenment mind-body dualism, we conclude by divinizing our desires and choices, placing them above doubt or question. Women tend to think that there's nothing wrong with using their sexuality to manipulate men; that they can dress however they wish, the rest of the world be damned. Men tend to think that satisfying their base desires is necessarily good; that getting what we 'want' is victory, the rest of the world be damned. Clearly the actions of men here, being direct violations of another person, are more condemnable, but both selfish tendencies, unchecked, add up to a war between the sexes and the splintering of society. But peace won't come from answering power with power, but from answering power with peace.

The irony is that Mark Frauenfelder presents himself (as do his supporters) as socially conscious. In actuality, by failing to teach his daughter about the social implications of dress, he is contributing to the impoverishment of community. In a world so individualistic that it's off-limits to comment on another's dress, if the parents don't teach their children about such things, who will?

Monday, December 31, 2012

The End of Time

Now we're at the end of our own calendar for the year, having somehow survived the supposed end of the Mayan calendar a week and a half ago. So much for another apocalyptic prediction. For his part, Aristotle reasons that "time will not fail" and that time's true limit is the boundary between past and future, the 'now' (Phys. IV.13.222b8, a10).

In our postlapsarian state, it's hard to live in the 'now' as much as we should—the atemporal 'mind' detaching itself excessively from the temporal 'body'. Apocalyptic predictions get us to focus on a single moment. This is a limitation: both a strength and a weakness. Focusing on a particular moment is a valuable exercise (as Boswell quotes Johnson, "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."), but it also distracts us from the real end of time: the present.


Speaking of calendars, here's an article that asserts that Christ Really Was Born Exactly 2013 Years Ago! The Chronology of Josephus Was Wrong. An interesting claim, and I'd like to know more about the scholarship behind the matter. (As well as why it's "Exactly 2013 Years" and not 2012 years plus one week.)

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Infantilization

I've been noticing how people in the northeast have a tendency to retreat into a tower of hurt feelings when anyone says anything off-putting. I'm glad to see that I'm not alone in my distaste for this juvenile pouting: a couple Harvard professors point out that the politically correct thought police on campus are keeping students from growing up and thinking for themselves:

Our hyper-vigilance about campus speech does the opposite of ensuring “safety.” It infantilizes students and tells them that any time they hear something that makes them uncomfortable, no matter how distasteful it may be, they have reason not only to be offended, but also to restrict the speech of others so that they can avoid their unpleasant feelings. This is not good pedagogy.

Well said.

Read the full article for more wisdom (in Time magazine, of all places).


Erika Christakis and Nicholas A. Christakis, "Whither Goes Free Speech at Harvard?," Time (Dec. 04, 2012).

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Biggest Barrier to Women in Science: Women

There it is. The New York Times has discovered it AGAIN! Bias against women in science. Here's the nub of the study that PROVES it:

All of the professors received the same one-page summary, which portrayed the applicant as promising but not stellar. But in half of the descriptions, the mythical applicant was named John and in half the applicant was named Jennifer.

About 30 percent of the professors, 127 in all, responded. (They were asked not to discuss the study with colleagues, limiting the chance that they would compare notes and realize its purpose.)

On a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being highest, professors gave John an average score of 4 for competence and Jennifer 3.3. John was also seen more favorably as someone they might hire for their laboratories or would be willing to mentor.

The average starting salary offered to Jennifer was $26,508. To John it was $30,328.

The bias had no relation to the professors’ age, sex, teaching field or tenure status. “There’s not even a hint of a difference there,” said Corinne Moss-Racusin, a postdoctoral social psychology researcher who was the lead author of the paper.

"The bias had no relation to the professors’ age, sex, teaching field or tenure status"! The article highlighted this fact:

Female professors were just as biased against women students as their male colleagues, and biology professors just as biased as physics professors — even though more than half of biology majors are women, whereas men far outnumber women in physics.

But why would women, whom one would expect to be more aware of the bias against them and take mental counter-measures, have the same bias as men?

I suspect the answer is that the "bias" matches their experience. (Some "biases" represent actual information. The bias we should be rooting out is the bias against reality.1)

There are plenty of possible explanations for why this might be so. For example, it could be that women have a higher propensity to leave the so-called professional ("real") world for family2, so the most notable scientists are men.

It could also be that women of a given level of proficiency in science show it to a much higher degree than men of the same level—in other words, that men are less articulate or expressive than women. But then that would be a bias against men.

But further, why do we automatically assume that women and men have the same aptitudes in everything, and are in fact virtually identical except perhaps physically? Has it yet been demonstrated that men and women in general have equal skill at science or communication? There's nothing to say that men aren't in fact more or less skilled than women.3 Perhaps the ridiculous assumption that sex is simply an accidental "add-on" is the reason the mother of twins might be asked whether her daughter and son are identical twins.

We already know that the supposed applications in the experiment were not identical in one way significant to the reviewers: the apparent sex of the applicant. Why should we automatically assume that the sex of the applicant is not an important piece of information? Such an assumption would seem to represent a decided prejudice.

But that leaves an important question: why should prejudice justify the institutionalization of discrimination?


Notes

1. But in our postmodern age, we're told that there is no truth and truth claims are reflections of power differentials. Of course this idea means this article and the study it's based on are simply part of a raw exercise of power... as is the idea itself.

2. Making a home and raising a family are supposed to be insignificant. Perhaps this explains why the U.S. fertility rate has fallen below replacement level. Apparently matters of (national) life and death are insignificant.

3. Lest I needlessly raise the hackles of roaming thought-policepersons, I should point out an important but often-overlooked paradox. Just because the majority of mumbley peg players are male, doesn't mean that the majority of males play mumbley peg. Similarly, if all terrorists in a certain place are Muslim, it doesn't follow that all Muslims there are terrorists. Nor would a disproportionate number of Blacks among criminals mean that most Blacks are anything but law-abiding citizens.

Ideally we would judge every person on his own individual merits. But given our limited information about a given individual, we inevitably group people among others with the same apparent characteristics. It would seem that such prejudice is inevitable among created intellects.


Kenneth Chang, "Bias Persists for Women of Science, a Study Finds," New York Times (September 24, 2012).

Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, Mark J. Graham, and Jo Handelsman, "Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Update

Alas, it's been quite a while since I've posted. I apologize if you've come here looking for something new and just found scores of old (albeit still relevant) posts.

Right now I've got a new job that requires long hours, and my hope for the science-and-philosophy material that I've been writing when I have time is to "get credit" (or possibly pay) for it by publishing it academically or through traditional print media. That said, I'm not short of ideas that need another forum to see the light of day, just time to put these into a presentable form.

Before I go, I'll give you a link to an interesting post I just ran across:

Democrats Officially Abandon, “My Body, My Choice!”

"Officially" is hyperbolic—as with any political party, the Democrats don't put a premium on consistent pronouncements—, but the post makes its point well.

Today's liberals may be libertarians morally (i.e., libertines), but at core they just want what great men like Napoleon have wanted throughout the ages: complete control, that is, the power to be free from any external power and to tell everyone else what to do. Besides, when was "choice" (or liberty) in itself ever a consistent ideal? If "pro-choice" people meant that label sincerely (rather than as a euphemism for pro-abortion), they would be promoting alternatives to abortion equally with abortion. Actually, they'd also be promoting the choice to be "anti-choice." That's how inconsistent an ideal "choice" is.