Thursday, September 29, 2011

Trigger Can't Dance: What does it mean to say that humans are rational animals and other animals aren't?

When I was in junior high school, I had a horse that could count to three. I would say, "Count the three," and she would scrape the ground three times. She could do it for one and two as well. She also nodded her head when she was told to say "Yes," and shook her head for "No." For me it was a chance to impress visitors. For her it involved a carrot.

But Lady Anne was not as smart as Trigger, Roy Rogers horse.  Look here Trigger dances, and here he actually acts!

But was Lady Anne really "counting"? And could Trigger really dance? And act? All Lady Anne knew is that if she performed a certain action in response to a certain command, it would result in a carrot. She didn't understand what she was doing. She could clearly distinguish between commands, and which one was calling for which action, but she didn't know anything about the concept "one," or "two" or "three." What Trigger's reward was, I don't know, although it apparently largely involved the emotional reward she got from the relationship with Roy Rogers, who, I heard Dale Evans say once, was an amazing one.

These animals can't reflect on what do, which would involve mentally stepping outside of themselves and viewing as a third person, they just do it.

When Lady Anne scraped the ground with her hoof, she couldn't think about the idea of "scraping the ground with your hoof." She could eat a carrot, but she couldn't think about the idea of "eating a carrot". This involves some kind of abstract conceptual realization that animals do not possess, but that humans, as rational animals, do.

One of the questions that has come up in the comments section of the post on the controversy over Adam and Eve is the nature of the difference between humans and non-humans, and whether animals can conceptualize like humans. The Aristotelian distinction separating man from animal is rationality, and that rationality has been said to consist in some inherent metaphysical ability to conceptualize.

Our beloved Singring, the chief rabble rouser in the Peanut Gallery, claims that primates have the ability to apprehend abstract concepts, but he keeps pointing to instances which do not demonstrate what he claims. He keeps posting links to websites that show or describe apes engaging in certain technical procedures that are clearly clever, but don't give any indication of an ability conceptualize in an abstract way.

So what exactly is the difference between humans and animals in regard to conceptualization? I would submit that man's "rationality" consists in his ability to apprehend universal concepts through process of abstraction (the process by which one intellectually moves from a particular instance of a thing to the concept or idea of the thing), to make judgments about those concepts which are expressed in statements, and to make deductive inferences using those judgments. And animals cannot apprehend universal concepts because they are incapable of abstraction, and they cannot therefore make judgments, because judgments are made up of those concepts which they cannot apprehend, and they cannot make deductive inferences because they are made up of judgments, which they are incapable of making.

For example, a dog might be able to apprehend that his master is feeding him, but he cannot articulate, even his his own mind, "The man (the physical thing in front of me now) is feeding me," since that involves the predication of one concept of another, and he can't apprehend concepts. And he can't think "Man is a rational animal" or "Dogs are mammals." And he can't reflect back on any of these thoughts, viewing them as grammatical procedures, nor can he reflect on the fact that he had these thoughts in the first place.

In other words, animals cannot conceptualize, predicate, judge, or deductively infer. And nothing Singring has said shows he can do any of these things that rational animals are capable of. And this, by the way, is why animals don't have language of the kind humans use.

Oh, and, smart as he is, Trigger can't dance or act either.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

More thoughts on the Adam and Eve question

The responses are, as I anticipated, beginning to come in on my post on the controversy over Adam and Eve, which was spawned by New Atheist biologist Jerry Coyne's claim that "[T]he genetic data show unequivocally that humanity did not descend from a single pair that lived in the genus Homo."

There were several responses from Christian thinkers to this claim, but, as is becoming increasingly common, the most telling came from Catholic philosopher Ed Feser, someone who we have had multiple opportunities on this blog to cheer on. Feser is an Aristotelian Thomist, which just means that he subscribes to the version of Aristotelian philosophy articulated most comprehensively by the medieval philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. As I have said before, Thomas' thought is the only thing worthy to be called Christian philosophy and all other pretenders to that title are weak imitations.

In the present case, Feser has applied the traditional Aristotelian Thomist definition of a "human being," which consists simply of the belief that man is a rational animal. We can explain this by using the terms laid out by Porphyry, a 3rd century Neoplatonist philosopher, in this famous "Porphyrean Tree," a division of all substance.

According to Porphyry, who was simply riffing on what Aristotle had said a few centuries earlier, man, in the most general terms, is an "animal" in the sense that, along with the beasts, he is a sentient, living, material substance. An animal is a living material organism that has senses--unlike plants which are non-sentient living, material substances; and unlike rocks, which are non-living material substances; and unlike angels, which are non-material substances. A man is an animal in this sense, but he has a specific difference that marks him off from the animal (which in traditional logic is called the "specific difference"), which is the quality of rationality itself. This makes him the only being who is a rational sentient, living, material substance.

The Christian belief, based on the Scriptural revelation, is that the human race, consisting of these rational animals, began with two people: Adam and Eve. And we are all descended ultimately from this pair. Genesis says this and the Apostle Paul, whose epistles are an important part of the Divine Revelation, clearly assumes this. In addition, the disobedient actions of this pair caused a spiritual rupture between them and God, and this separated status is shared by all their descendants by virtue of their sharing in the same human nature.

This is the doctrine of original sin. And just as Adam represents the human race in rebelling against God, so Christ represents it on the cross in redeeming it. This, of course, is one of the reasons the doctrine is so important: man is redeemed in the same way he fell: according to a representational scheme: Adam represented man in the fall in the same way Christ represented man in the redemption. Paul states this pretty clearly in Romans. So if you believe Christ redeemed the human race in the act of crucifixion and resurrection, you shouldn't have any problem believing that Adam brought it down in the act of disobedience. They're sort of two sides of the same coin.

A number of scientists (including Christian ones) say that, over the course of the evolution of human beings, there was never just two humans: at the smallest bottleneck of the developmental chain, there were, at minimum, at least 10,000 individuals. Therefore, they say, we are not descended from one primordial pair.

Now there are undoubtedly numerous assumptions along the chain of reasoning that leads to this 10,000 individual estimate. And it is a little suspicious that others use other numbers, which would seem to indicate that this is, in some respect, and inexact science. And obviously there is the evolutionary assumption as well, and there are not a few Christians who won't go for that. But for purposes of addressing the question of whether there was an Adam and Eve whose descendants we are, it really doesn't matter. We can stipulate this for purposes of debate.

One of the interesting things about this debate is that, before Feser weighed in, a number of Christian thinkers, unarmed by the Thomistic distinctions, tried to deal with the implications of the genetic evidence, but, quite frankly, didn't do a very good job of it. Without a proper definition of human being, these people, well-intentioned as I'm sure they were, were in the position of either having to argue against the evidence of genetics on the one hand, or rejecting the traditional account of the Biblical Adam and Eve story on the other. The ones getting the press, of course, took the latter course.

Feser simply pointed out that the term "human being" is not merely a biological designation, but a metaphysical one as well. He is a rational animal--and the "rational" part of that is not a biological designation. Unfortunately, many of the evangelical rationalizations--like that of Fracis Collins--bought into the idea that man is only his biology.

If you don't understand what man is, then your going to have a heck of a time determining who the first one is.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Were Adam and Eve real? Another case of atheist scientists jumping the gun and failing to make important distinctions

When my youngest son was about eight, he would assault his 16 year old brother by simply rushing him, while my oldest son would calmly put out one arm, catching him by the head and just hold him him there as my youngest son's arms would just flail about in the air, not harming anybody. Undaunted, my eight year old son would simply repeat the same method of attack--getting the same ineffective result. But even though he never got anywhere by doing this, I admired his spunk. He is now 16 himself and trains in mixed martial arts and his technique has improved dramatically.

This is the image that came to mind seeing the most recent exchange between atheist biologist Jerry Coyne (the eight year-old in this saga) and Christian philosopher Edward Feser. Jerry rushes at Ed, all arms flailing, Ed holds hand out, stopping the charge, calmly pointing out to Jerry that his facts are wrong, his arguments are invalid, that he is completely missing the point, or that he has failed to make a crucial distinction, at which point Jerry, in seeming ignorance of the points Ed has made, just keeps repeating the same futile procedure over and over and over again.

But if you can't appreciate his logic (and he makes it very difficult), you at least gotta admire his spunk.

In the most recent episode, the issue is whether there could have been a literal Adam and Eve. It is a debate, Christianity Today magazine asserted, that constitutes "a groundbreaking science-and-Scripture dispute, a 21st-century equivalent of the once disturbing proof that the Earth orbits the sun." While it is not quite equivalent to the issue of whether Jesus actually rose from the dead, a literal claim without which there would literally be no Christianity, the Apostle Paul does clearly assume a literal Adam, making it a truth claim the disproof of which would seriously cripple the philosophical and theological integrity of Christianity, particularly the doctrine of original sin, which asserts that, in the words of the old New England Primer, "In Adam's fall, we fell all."

There are Christians, of course, who try to fudge on this issue, claiming that one could believe in a figurative Adam and Eve (i.e., that Paul was mistaken) and still be an orthodox Christian. Former head of the Human Genome Project Francis Collins and his colleague Karl Giberson attempt this position. But it's not a terribly convincing.

The Catholic Church has long taken the position that the origin of the human body--whether it comes from "pre-existent and living matter"--is not the material issue. One can take the position that the human body was the result of biological development as long as one did not deny that "souls are immediately created by God." Leo XII's statement on this issue in his encyclical Humani Generis also states that polygenism (that we are descended from multiple parents rather than one particular set) is not a belief that is reconcilable with orthodox Christianity. In addition, he said, such a belief would conflict with the belief in original sin.

Protestants are not limited by any particular theological authority other than their own personal interpretive inclinations, a fact that has resulted in a riot of diverse schools of thought on such issues, but the Catholic teaching is clear and unambiguous. We are descended from two original human parents. So the questioning of this dogma is important indeed.

Enter Coyne, who declared recently on his blog, "[T]he scientific evidence shows that Adam and Eve could not have existed, at least in the way they’re portrayed in the Bible."

And, lest his assertion was not clear, he added, "Unlike the case of Jesus’s virgin birth and resurrection, we can dismiss a physical Adam and Eve with near scientific certainty."

And, just in case there was still any doubt about what he meant, he concluded, "[T]he genetic data show unequivocally that humanity did not descend from a single pair that lived in the genus Homo."

Coyne tries to base his claim on genetic research that ironically derives in part from the person whose appointment to head the Human Genome Project he adamantly opposed on the grounds that he was an evangelical Christian: Francis Collins. Collins wrote, in a 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, that, as Christianity Today put it, "humans emerged from primate ancestors perhaps 100,000 years ago—long before the apparent Genesis time frame—and originated with a population that numbered something like 10,000, not two individuals."

Richard Ostling, writing in Christianity Today, recounts the position of Dennis R. Venema, a biology chairman at Trinity Western University and a fellow at Biologos, an organization with which Coyne has shown little but scorn because of their "accommodationist" (i.e., that science and religion are consistent approaches to truth):
Over the past decade, researchers have attempted to use the genetic diversity within modern humans to estimate primordial population sizes. According to a consensus drawn from three independent avenues of research, he states, the history of human ancestry involved a population "bottleneck" around 150,000 years ago—and from this tiny group of hominids came everyone living today. But the size of the group was far larger than a lonely couple: it consisted of several thousand individuals at minimum, say the geneticists.
So Coyne, armed with evidence uncovered in part by an evangelical Christian who only several years earlier he proclaimed could not be trusted on such issues--and flailing away, announces that there were no Adam and Eve. Coyne then goes on to catalog various evangelical rationalizations of the problem, all of which he finds wanting, at which point he does his end zone dance.

But it was all effective enough to convince John Farrell to write a piece in Forbes magazine where he unaccountably finds Coyne convincing on this issue, quotes him, and expands on Coyne's points (misstating the Eastern Orthodox view on original sin in the process), and challenging the Catholic Church to renounce its "silence" on the "challenge of genomics."

Apparently the continuous public witness of the Church over the course of centuries to the truth of the Aristotelian-Thomist position, which articulates a full view of man as a physical and spiritual creature that bears only partial resemblance to the being Farrell, Coyne and others discuss in their arguments, and making clear public statements which are easily available to anyone who is serious about wanting to know the Church's position are just not sufficient.

Despite this, Coyne accuses theists "of rationalizing, post facto, hopes and ideas that one pulls out of thin air."  Statements like this serve as atheist like a sort of spell to keep .

But just in case anyone needed to be reminded, Catholic philosopher Ed Feser enters the fray. Feser, who is fast becoming the go-to guy when it comes to defending the Ancient Faith against its less than intellectually impressive detractors (and who you can just imagine sighing once again and shaking his head), then pointed out a few uncomfortable facts to Jerry (and John), among which is that, in his post on this issue, Coyne didn't even bother taking into account the view of the Christian institution that has been around the longest, an institution that has made an implicit distinction between the concept of homo sapiens as a biological category and the concept of rational animals as a physical and theological category.

In other words, the biological condition of homo sapiens is a necessary condition for being a humans as we know them now, but it is not sufficient. The philosophical distinction of man as a "rational animal" (Aristotle's definition) is also necessary to the full definition of human being. Men are indeed homo sapiens, biologically speaking. But they are something far more than this: they are creatures who can apprehend abstract concepts in a way in which other animals do not even remotely approximate. He points in his response to an article by Kenneth W. Kemp ("Science, Theology, and Monogenesis"), which goes into gory detail about the Catholic position on this and why it is completely consistence with a bottleneck of however many thousand homo sapiens.

But Coyne, who apparently didn't actually read Feser's article but someone else's summary, does what he seems to do every time he has to deal with Feser: he fires wildly while running for cover. In this case, he criticizes Feser using an argument that Kemp's article, to which Feser had linked to, had already refuted--and then goes and hides behind Jason Rosenhouse. "I needn’t go over all the problems that Jason finds with this."

Yeah. Right.

It's hard work acting as second for someone who, every time he show up for the duel, runs off, but Rosenhouse, a mathematician who blogs at EvolutionBlog, holds forth manfully. But Rosenhouse seems to have no better ability to manage careful distinctions than Coyne.

He argues first that "the Bible does not teach anything remotely like what Feser is describing." Rosenhouse manages this criticism by assuming that Feser is somehow obligated to give Genesis a fundamentalist reading, which it is kind of hard for Feser to do since, like, he's a Catholic. As Feser himself pointed out, while it would be very convenient for atheists if all Christians took a fundamentalist position, they probably need to get used to the fact that all Christians are not fundamentalists, and that it would probably help their case (not to mention make for a more productive discussion) to actually address the arguments of Christians who, like Feser, don't match up with the stereotypes atheists are always invoking.

Rosenhouse then questions Feser's point that human being are not exhausted by their physical attributes, to which Rosenhouse responds, "we should note that Catholic theologians have not the slightest basis for saying that our nature is simply not exhausted by our physical attributes." Back to Feser:
Hear that? Not “a highly controversial basis.” Not “a basis that I, Jason Rosenhouse, find unconvincing.” No, not the slightest basis. Now, forget about my own arguments for the intellect’s immateriality (though Rosenhouse says nothing in response to them). A great many more important Catholic philosophers and theologians have also presented serious arguments for it, as have non-Catholic Christians and pagan thinkers in the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions. Secular writers like Karl Popper and David Chalmers have endorsed forms of dualism. Secular writers like Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer, and Galen Strawson, while they do not embrace dualism, nevertheless reject physicalism. Yet others, like Thomas Nagel, Jerry Fodor, and Joseph Levine, have argued that there are at least serious difficulties facing physicalism which have yet to be answered. And many materialists who think these difficulties can be answered at least acknowledge that the difficulties are indeed serious ones raised by critics in good faith. Then there are secular non-dualists like Tyler Burge, John Searle, and William Lycan, who (as I have noted before) have expressed the opinion that the dominance of materialism in contemporary philosophy of mind owes less to the quality of the arguments in its favor than to ideological thinking.

But for Rosenhouse, it seems, none of these thinkers has the slightest basis for his views. It’s all just transparently feeble religious apologetics, apparently even with the many secularists among them. No doubt that’s because Rosenhouse read a materialist philosophy of mind book once back in college which he thinks “refuted” all the objections to materialism once and for all.
In other words, let's all pretend that these argument have never been made so we can go on arguing with our fundamentalist caricatures.

Finally, Rosenhouse says, "Intelligence and rationality appear to be things that come in degrees." He then goes on to list all the intelligent qualities animals have the men also possess, all of which are apparently supposed to add up to the qualities that men have that animals do not possess, namely, as Feser points out, "conceptual thought" that "can have a determinate, unambiguous content and a universality of reference that sensations, mental imagery, and material symbols cannot have even in principle."

Rosenhouse says that Feser's account "creates some very difficult theological problems." The problem is that none of the "theological problems" Rosenhouse identifies are actually theological problems. In fact, all they amount to is Rosenhouse saying that he doesn't understand why God would have done it that way. So saying you don't understand someone's motivations for doing something some kind of refutation of the fact that they did it?

"Also," Rosenhouse adds, "the idea of a Chosen People is itself theologically problematic. Among Jews, a very common understanding of the notion is that the Jews are unique only in their willingness to accept a covenant with God. Which is to say, it is the Jews who chose God and not the other way around." Wait, Rosenhouse was only just earlier seen arguing that Feser wasn't following the Biblical account, and now Rosenhouse is arguing this? One thing that comes through loud and clear in those accounts is that the covenant is completely unilateral in its initiation. Maybe Rosenhouse could explain how he derives Abraham's willingness out of the Biblical accounts which don't mention what Abraham thought about it at all.

Memo to New Atheists: Don't debate Feser. Go back to your caracatures. And theists? They don't need caricatures. They've got Rosenhouse and Coyne.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

At least one thing can travel faster than the speed of light, and it's not KY Gov. Steve Beshear running away from a debate

Jay Wile wonders: do the results of the recent experiment at CERN on neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light necessarily overturn Einstein's special theory of relativity?
Suppose the results stand up and are confirmed by another lab. Does that mean special relativity is wrong? Not necessarily. Special relativity does not forbid all faster-than-light travel. It only forbids faster-than-light travel for particles with mass that start out traveling under the speed of light. This is because the equations of special relativity indicate it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate a particle with mass through the speed of light. However, if a particle with mass is created with an initial velocity greater than the speed of light, that is not a problem. Indeed, scientists even have a name for such a particle – the tachyon. The particle is hypothetical, of course, but it is consistent with special relativity.

The “neutrinos” being detected are formed in collisions between high-energy protons and stationary carbon atoms. While we think we understand the reaction that produces these neutrinos, it could be that there is something unexpected going on in the reaction, and that effect is causing particles to be produced with an initial velocity that is faster than the speed of light. As a result, the particles being detected aren’t neutrinos at all. Instead, they are some form of tachyon.

In the end, then, this is a very interesting result, but I seriously doubt it will be confirmed. If confirmed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that special relativity is wrong. It could mean that we have finally detected the elusive tachyon! That would be quite amazing, since our current understanding of physics says that we shouldn’t be able to detect tachyons with the OPERA detector. Of course, our current understanding of physics also says that special relativity is inconsistent with neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light.
Read the rest here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Does E Really Equal MC Squared? The universe just got a whole lot more complicated

As if it wasn't already.

Scientists at the Geneva-based CERN physics lab have clocked subatomic particles called "neutrinos" going faster than the speed of light, something which, under Einstein's special theory of relativity, is impossible. Says the BBC:
The speed of light is the Universe's ultimate speed limit, and the entirety of modern physics--as laid out in part by Albert Einstein in his theory of relativity--depends on the idea that nothing can exceed it.
Says the Atlantic Wire:
Understandably, reports are using adjectives like "baffled" and "astounded" to describe the scientists. "This would be such a sensational discovery if it were true that one has to treat it extremely carefully," a theoretical physicist at CERN named John Ellis tells the AP. CERN found that a neutrino beam fired from a particle accelerator near Geneva to a lab 454 miles away in Italy traveled 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light, a difference that is statistically significant even with the margin of error. The lab's researchers have checked and rechecked their work and are still asking scientists in the U.S. and Japan to confirm the results. What hangs in the balance? Oh, just the laws of nature and our understanding of the universe.
But we must remember that, even though one of the bedrock theories of physics may now being hanging in the balance, we must not think that the findings of science can be questioned (in the sense of, like, actually questioning them) or that anyone who questions the certainty of these theories is not a blithering ignoramus, which, of course, we know they must be.

Just sayin'.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The death of literature and how to stop it

If you are not rendered functionally illiterate by being subjected to incompetent reading instruction in American elementary schools and you are not rendered disinterested in books altogether in high school where vocational training and driver's ed are just as high a priority as literature, then you will probably end up in college, where what an author actually says in a book is less important than the ideology you bring to reading it. Here is the Atlantic Wire giving a brief synopsis of the whole mess:
For hundreds of years, people read books for plot, character, action and nice turns-of-phrase. Then, in the 1970s literary theory emerged on American campuses, and suddenly that wing in the English department faculty lounge--the one reserved for the professors whose classes never had a wait list, the ones who knew too much of academia, and too little of life and books--had to tell students they were reading wrong. As The Atlantic's Scott Stossel wrote in 1996, professors at the time were offering up just about "any esoteric ism" you could think of to support reading a book not as a book, but as a coded text (always a text) dealing with the semester's most provocative social issues. Eventually, people graduated and could return to reading books like normal. It was all very silly, and by the end of 20th century, the backlash had begun against criticism "disconnected from life" and academia's "love affair with reducing literature to ideas, to the author's or reader's intention or ideology," argued Lindsay Waters in The Chronicle of Higher Education back in 2005.
Meanwhile, over at the Millions, which another link at the Atlantic Wire brings us to, there is a list of five books to bone up on exactly what is up with literary criticism these days, and give us books about the postmodernist ideologies that rule the higher education roost. But there is little in this list in the way of an actual cure.

I would suggest several books and resources of my own to inoculate yourself against the literary nonsense:

At War with the Word, by R. V. Young: This book is an excellent account of the origins and philosophy behind various kinds of postmodernist literary criticism and champions the (old) New Criticism of Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson, Alan Tate, W. K. Wimsatt, and others, who, although their school at times caricatured itself, were largely on target.

From Plato to Postmodernism, by Louis Markos: This is actually a tape/mp3/DVD series put out by The Teaching Company. It is an excellent introduction to the history of literary criticism. Markos points out that Northrop Frye was the last of the logocentric literary critics and after that, it is all been downhill. I have listed to this series several times and look forward to doing so again.

The Meaning of Shakespeare, by Harold Goddard: This collection of commentaries on the plays of Shakespeare is a great work in its own right. I have sought wisdom in it many times and always found it. Published posthumously, Goddard's observations on Shakespeare will give you an insight into the Bard that you can take back to the text like a light to illuminate the mysteries of the greatest writer in English.

All the literary criticism T. S. Eliot ever wrote: Eliot shocked the literary establishment who, after ruling the world of poetry for several decades with poems like" The Wasteland" and "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock," then mostly gave up poetry and began writing literary criticism that was, despite the modernism of his poetic style, highly traditional. This of course was a scandal to the Philistines of the literary world--as good intellectual thinking usually is.

All the literary criticism G. K. Chesterton ever wrote: Chesterton is now getting his due as a Dickens critic. But his literary observations in Heretics, and A Handful of Authors (as well as all the literary criticism that is strewn throughout his other works) is so stunning and insightful, you will need someone to awake you from your exalted state after reading them.

All the literary criticism Alfred Kazin ever wrote: I discovered Kazin when I read his introduction to Moby Dick, one of the greatest pieces of criticism ever written. It's what got me interested in Melville again, for which I am manifestly grateful. Kazin was one of the last traditionalists writing about literature for a popular audience.

All the literary criticism Harold Bloom ever wrote: Bloom is a controversial figure, partly because he attended the birth of the postmodernist literary criticism and partly because he often inserts Fruedianism into his commentary. It also doesn't help that his writings on the Bible assume some of the sillier versions of higher criticism. But that doesn't stop Bloom's work from being among the most cogent and interesting commentary on literature ever written. His books Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, The Western Canon, and The Visionary Company, are among the greatest books on books ever written. He may have a number of intellectual quirks, but he is still treats literature like it should be treated.

All the literary criticism Mark Van Doren ever wrote: Mark Van Doren was the father of rather more famous (or infamous son) Charles Van Doren who was implicated in the cheating scandal on the TV game show "Twenty One." That, of course, has little substantively to do with Mark. The elder Van Doren's book Shakespeare is one of the best works of criticism on that great playwright ever written, and his The Noble Voice, a set of ten commentaries on the great epic poems is simply outstanding.

There are other great ones, of course. The older critics are just as relevant today: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, and, of course, Samuel Johnson (particularly his various commentary on Shakespeare and his Lives of the Poets). 20th century writers on literature like Hugh Kenner, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More (the two most widely known of the New Humanists), as well as Lionel Trilling, Wayne C. Booth, M. H. Abrams, F. R. Leavis, and H. L. Mencken. Then there are the New Critics like Alan Tate, John Crowe Ransom, R. P. Blackmur, and Cleanth Brooks. Some of these writers can, however, be hard to read, unlike the ones mentioned in previous paragraphs.

And who can forget George Steiner's Dostoevsky or Tolstoy?; A. C. Bradley's great Shakespearean Tragedy; Northrup Frye's Fearful Symmetry; and C. S. Lewis' essay, "Satan," concerning Milton's Paradise Lost?

Even some of the postmodernists, as many times as they get it wrong, are worth reading. Nietszche's The Birth of Tragedy, Terry Eagleton's After Theory, and the writings of Slovaj Žižek are well worth reading, and postmodernists such as Stanley Fish, Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Foucault have insights that you can benefit from as long as you are well grounded in the older, greater critics.

Do yourself a favor and pick up an older edition of Criticism: The Major Statements and Critiques and Essays in Criticism. They are widely available used. Also A Handbook to Literature, by C. Hugh Holman (again, an older edition, unadulterated by the postmodernist plague is better, although there will be less on more contemporary writing--in fact, it's a good idea to have both an older and more recent editions like I have) is the best literary reference ever written.

"Bad, bad Pope," says world media

Every time a pope makes a widely publicized visit to another part of the world, the media swings into action, talking almost exclusively about the dissident reaction. When John Paul II visited the United States in 1995, it was preceded by headlines about anti-papal protest. When Benedict visited England, there was supposed to be massive demonstrations by atheist groups that would undoubtedly embarrass the Catholic leader.

Instead, of course, the visits were stunning successes, with the respective popes on both occasions surprising their detractors with the unforeseen popularity. John Paul's visit to the U.S. was as successful as such a visit could be, and Benedict's recent visit to England brought out massive crowds just to see him pass by on the streets of London, dwarfing the anemic bands of protesters. Not that you can find much comment about that from the secular media.

Now Benedict is visiting Germany, and, as Tim Drake points out, we're getting the usual pre-visit propaganda:
On the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to his homeland, he’s unable to find any friendly press. The worldwide media is eager to seize on any tension to undermine the trip before it has even begun.
Read more here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Chesterton Revival

When I was writing a master's thesis on G. K. Chesterton's religious thought in the mid 80s, it was hard to find anyone who even knew who he was. Despite little knowledge of Chesterton's actual writing, some did recognize the name, simply because he was still commonly quoted, but beyond that, he was a largely forgotten writer. Since that time, however, there has been a steadily growing familiarity and appreciation of his work.
In a review of a new Chesterton biography by Ian Ker, Jay Parini recounts just how highly Chesterton has been regarded:

Chesterton's work includes nearly every type of writing—poetry, philosophy, literary criticism, biography, political and social argument, playwriting, detective fiction, and Christian apologetics. Yet he was, in the main, a journalist at heart, pumping out weekly columns for a variety of papers, especially The Daily Mail, on every conceivable subject, and his devoted audience included the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, who was "thunderstruck" by Chesterton's fierce independence of thought.

Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine fabulist, never failed to mention Chesterton among his favorite writers. Being a fan of detective fiction, he too adored the Father Brown stories, regarding Chesterton, with Edgar Allan Poe and Conan Doyle, as a founding father of the genre. Yet it was more than the detective fiction that interested Borges; he quoted Chesterton extensively as a linguistic philosopher, crediting him with "the most lucid words written about language."

Writers often gravitated toward Chesterton, including George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, both ardent socialists but good, if contentious, friends during his lifetime. Indeed, Chesterton debated Shaw in public on several occasions, and Chesterton's own idiosyncratic but highly suggestive history of the world (The Everlasting Man, 1925) might be considered a riposte to Wells's The Outline of History (1919). (Wells regarded human beings as a species who evolved from a highly primitive form and might one day use their intelligence to establish a peaceful and prosperous world. Chesterton thought that impossible; human beings would continue to suffer from something akin to what Christians call "original sin.") Among later writers, T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien admired him, while W.H. Auden took the trouble to edit a selection from Chesterton's nonfiction in 1970.

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Who needs to read, anyway?

The College Board announced last week that this years SAT reading scores were the "lowest on record." In fact, their scores in math and writing also went down. E. D. Hirsch, Jr. pointed out that the problem is that, instead of having students actually, like, read, they are being taught how to do well on tests, with the ironic result that they are doing worse on tests. Pretty soon, people will be so brain dead, they will all become education majors, where grade inflation is apparently worse than in every other academic discipline. Then they will then proceed on into the intellectual wasteland called the "education establishment" where they will implement stupid ideas--like teaching kids how to take reading tests instead of actually having them read.

But the systematic dumbing down of a whole generation of children will have one good result: they won't be able to read the Old Testament, which, unlike university education departments, says David Berlinski, "is the greatest repository of human knowledge and wisdom in the history of civilization, any time, any place." Fortunately, nobody is testing for knowledge and wisdom anymore, so there's no need to worry about it.

And if they could read, then they might venture to read the Times Atlas, where they would be told that that 15 percent of Greenland's permanent ice cover has melted, a figure, the Times says, it got from the NSIDC (which stands for "None Such Is Da Case"), which says that "While mass loss in Greenland is significant, and accelerating, the loss of ice from Greenland is far less than the Times Atlas indicates," giving us another instance of people who overstate the extent of global warming.

And then there's people who won't read. When literary critic Terry Eagleton accused atheist Richard Dawkin's of concocting "vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince,” to which Dawkins responded that he didn't need to read theologians. "To suggest he study theology seems akin to suggesting he study fairies," says the New York Times. “I’ve had perfectly wonderful conversations with Anglican bishops, and I rather suspect if you asked in a candid moment, they’d say they don’t believe in the virgin birth,” he says.

I rather suspect that if you asked in a candid moment, many prominent atheists would say they do believe in the Virgin Birth. You didn't read it here first.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Okay, say Rick Perry can't be bought for $5,000. Can he be bought for $30,000?

How much money did Rick Perry take from Merck & Co., the makers of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine which, after donating to state legislators and other policy makers all over the country, they went out and pushed to have forced on middle school girls?
But wait! I didn't have the whole story. It turns out it was more like $30,000. 
And wait again! Over the past five years, it turns out that Merck gave over $350,000 to the Republican Governors Association, a period in which Perry was heavily involved with the group, and the RGA in turn gave $4 million to Rick Perry. 
And wait some more! Merck's lobbyist on the vaccine issue was Mike Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff. Toomey recently co-founded a super PAC that plans to raise over $50 million for Perry's campaign.
Read more here.

HT: The Atlantic Wire

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The ten books everyone should read

At his speech at Highlands Latin Schools Community Lecture Series last April, philosopher Peter Kreeft listed the ten books all our classical school teachers should read. It seems to me that everyone should read them. I will note that they were written by two saints (one of whom was a philosopher), two philosophers (one of whom was a saint), four poets (one of whom was also a dramatist), one mathematician (the maximum number allowed), and one novelist. And one author appears twice because he is the greatest: Homer. Here they are:

  • The Confessions, by St. Augustine
  • The Summa Theologica, by St. Thomas Aquinas
  • Plato's Dialogues
  • Shakespeare's plays 
  • The Divine Comedy, by Dante
  • The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Aeneid, by Virgil
  • The Iliad, by Homer
  • The Odyssey, by Homer
  • The Pensees, by Pascal
  • The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Are there really 15.1 percent of Americans really living in poverty?

A multi-millionaire who owns several houses (with servants' quarters), matching his and hers Bentleys, a luxury yacht, and a private jet could find himself listed as "in poverty" in the United States. In fact, Warren Buffet could easily find himself categorized as "in poverty."


Because the United State Census--where all those statistics are coming from telling us that 15.1 percent of Americans are living in poverty--takes account only of income for the year. So if a rich person shows a loss (which is quite common) or has fancy accountants who can reduce his adjusted gross income to below about $22,000 (assuming a family of four), he is counted as poor by the Census.

Go figure.

Logic is human: Literature is angelic

There is a sense in which literature transcends logic. Logic is limited in its access to truth by the Law of Noncontradiction: Both A and not A cannot be true at the same time and in the same respect. Napoleon was the emperor of France or he was not; water is made of two hydrogen molecules and an oxygen molecule or it is not; It is either a fine day or it is not--in each case, both things cannot be true in the same way.

But poetry (and by that word I mean what it has always traditionally meant--namely, literature in the broad sense) is not limited in this way. Poetry transcends the laws of logic. In a story, something can be something and not be something at the same time. This is the whole power of symbolism and metaphor: one word, or one idea, or one character can be something that it is not--at the same time and in the same respect.

Lewis' Aslan is not Christ, but he is; Tolkien's Galadriel is not Mary (or Eve), but she is; Fitzgerald's Gatsby is not the American dream, yet he is; Melville's Moby Dick is not nature itself, but he is; Steinbeck's Pearl of the World, is not mammon, but it is.

Literature is angelic while logic is human. I had someone challenge me one time about my use in my logic textbook of the Porhyrian Tree, a medieval division of all substance: Everything that exists is a substance; a substance is either immaterial (like an angel) or material. A material substance is either not living (like a rock) or living; a living material substance is either non-sentient (like a plant) or sentient; a sentient, living, material substance is either non-rational (like a beast) or it is rational. Man is the only rational, sentient, living material substance.

But, I was asked, if this classification is correct, then angels are not rational, but we know they are. Therefore, this classification cannot be correct. I pointed out that angels are not, in fact, rational beings. To be "rational" is to have to go through the several step process of deductive reasoning. We are composite (or complex) beings and so we have to go to all the trouble of attaching the minor and major terms together (which constitute a conclusion) by way of a middle term which takes two premises to spell out. This is a lot of trouble, of course, and if you think it's easy, just look at my comboxes on this blog to see how few people are able to do it correctly :).

Angels, however, are not composite beings. They are simple beings. The only beings that can possibly be complex are material beings, matter being necessary for complexity. But angels are immaterial. They are constituted exclusively of form. They are therefore simple. They do not have to go through steps in the process of apprehending truth: it is immediately accessible to them without the necessity of reason. Angels are "intelligent" beings, but they are not "rational" beings, and to call an angel "rational" would therefore be, not a compliment, but an insult.

The person who challenged me on this was a Catholic, and I pointed out that my analysis here was taken directly from St. Thomas Aquinas, the "Doctor" of his own Church.

Logic is human because it requires us to go through a complex set of steps in order for us to find truth, but literature is angelic in the sense that it is simple: it is a direct avenue to the truth. It requires no steps. It makes truth immediately accessible analogically through the literary object which is the thing it symbolizes.

Even though it's not.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Would Rick Perry go for this idea: The forced circumcision of middle school boys?

In last night's CNN/Tea Party debate among Republican presidential candidates, Michelle Bachmann slammed Texas Gov. Rick Perry for trying to mandate the HPV vaccination for middle school girls in his state and for taking contributions from the manufacturer of the drug. For some reason, Perry tried to defend the policy even after he has already said it was a mistake. The following is my blog post from 2007, after the Kentucky house of Representatives passed a bill that would have mandated the administration of the HPV vaccine, Gardasil, manufactured by Merck & Co., to middle school girls. It had an "opt out" provision in it, just like the same policy in Perry's Texas. Well, if the arguments for Gardasil are valid for Gardasil, then why aren't those same arguments applicable to, say, mandating circumcision for middle school boys?

According to the new issue of Time Magazine, a new National Institutes of Health study shows that circumcision reduces the risk of contracting HIV by 60 percent. A report of the study appears in the most recent issue of The Lancet, a widely regarded British medical journal.

Now obviously this means that the more boys who are circumcised, the better off we will be. The more circumcisions, the less HIV. And the less HIV, the fewer deaths that will result from it. And how best to ensure that more boys are circumcised? Surely the answer to that question is obvious:

Mandate the circumcision of middle school boys.

Just look at the HIV statistics. How many people die of HIV every year? Imagine the lives that might be saved if we ensured that every young boy was circumcised before entering middle school.

And that's why we need to mandate circumcision in Kentucky: because it will save lives.

Now undoubtedly there will be those detractors who will oppose this idea. But these are the same people who opposed mandating the HPV vaccine: religious people. And we know about them, don't we?

These people say that the decision to circumcise their children should be left up to parents. And that would be a fine idea—if all parents were good parents. But we all know that is not the case. All parents are not good parents. There are some parents who will not do what is best for their own children (according to us), and so we must make these decisions for them.

According to most statistics, only 76 percent of boys are circumcised. But among some groups of people—and these are the people who we are really concerned about, even though we don’t like to admit it because we want them to continue to vote for us—the rate is as low as 45 percent.

The government has the responsibility to step into the relationship between families and their physicians for their own good. Of course, this principle does not extend to the abortion issue, where we take the complete opposite position. There, the government has no business in the health care decisions of individuals, as we have said repeatedly until we are blue in the face, and then decide to say something completely different.

But that is another issue altogether that we really don't want to talk about right now.

Back to these religious people who think that parents have rights. Even though these people will argue that mandating circumcision violates parental rights, they really have an ulterior motive. What really bothers them about mandating the circumcision of middle school boys is that it has to do with sex. In fact, as State Rep. Tom Burch points out, they wouldn't even be involved in debates like this if it weren't for sex.

Come to think of it, nobody would be involved in any debate if it weren't for sex. In fact, nobody would be here at all. But regardless, we need a mandate.


What mandate? Who said mandate? When did we ever say we should mandate circumcision? We're not talking about a mandate, and anyone who says that we ever proposed a mandate is misrepresenting us.

Now of course one of the reasons we need to mandate circumcision is that if we don't mandate it, insurance plans won't have to cover it. But, of course, like we just said, this isn't really a mandate. It's only a mandate in this paragraph so that we can make this argument. In the next paragraph, it isn't a mandate anymore.

You've got to follow along closely here and pay attention.

Never mind that most insurance plans already cover circumcision (just like they cover Gardasil, the HPV vaccine). Theoretically, under different circumstances, maybe in a different dimension (possibly in the one inhabited by the Lexington Herald-Leader), they could conceivably not cover circumcision. And what would happen then? Why, we would have uncovered circumcisions, that's what. And we know how embarrassing that would be.

That's why we need a mandate—even though that's not what this is.

One of the reasons this isn't a mandate is because we are going to allow the families of these boys to opt out. Now there are some people (those religious people) who ask why, if it is not a mandate, we need an opt out in the first place. They point out that there is no reason for an opt out unless it is a mandate. If it's not a mandate, there would be nothing to opt out from. They say we are talking out of both sides of our mouth. But remember, these are just crazy religious people.

And we say that out of both sides of our mouth.

Besides, if these people don't stop misrepresenting us, we're going to mandate this for them too—whether they need it or not. No anesthesia, no opt outs, no nothin'.

Remember, this non-mandate mandate could save thousands of lives nationally and worldwide. Now you may be wondering how a Kentucky law could save all of these lives across the nation and around the world. Well, we wonder about that also, but this same argument worked for the bill to mandate the HPV vaccination (SB 345, the mandate that wasn't a mandate), so we figure it will work on this issue too.

And let's deal right here with the nasty rumor going around that our support for mandatory circumcision of middle school boys has anything to do with campaign contributions to key Kentucky legislators by the National Association of Rabbinical and Non-Rabbinical Mohels (NARNRM). We can't deny this, of course, any more than we can deny that there were campaign contributions in 2004 and 2006 from Merck & Co., the developer of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine, to legislators in whose committees HB 345 was considered. But so what?

Have you seen anything in the news media about these contributions? No. Just like there was nothing ever said about Merck's contributions. Now wouldn't you think that if there had been something amiss, the intrepid investigative reporters at newspapers like the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Louisville Courier-Journal would have said something about it?


But all this is just a distraction from the main point that anyone who opposes the idea of mandating circumcision is opposed to saving lives. If they were really concerned about lives, they would ignore the inherent contradictions and illogical arguments offered for this mandate that really isn't a mandate even though we keep saying so and then denying it.

But what do they do instead? They just keep confusing the issue with logic and facts that have nothing to do with whether it's a mandate—or isn't. Maybe.

In fact, speaking of the HPV vaccination for girls: in comparison to that idea, circumcision for boys is simple. Girls have to endure the ordeal of going in for three different shots. But circumcision for boys? It's quick and easy. Whack! and it's over.

Come to think of it, if we could get the doctor to slice just a few more inches closer to the body, we could probably prevent a lot of other societal havoc. But that's a discussion for another day. Or maybe next week, when we decide to mandate something else we think is good for everybody and then pretend that it's not a mandate, except on Tuesdays.

But for right now we need to think about HIV, and all the other diseases that have nothing to do with HIV but that kill people too because they all make us sad. And sadness is a bad thing—except when it gets people so emotional they forget that these other diseases have absolutely nothing to do with HIV and whether a mandate will actually reduce it, and whether this is really a mandate or not.

And that is why we need this new policy. Because it isn't a mandate.

Except when it is.

The above cartoon comes by way of On the Right, Steve Manning's blog.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Europeans are going nuts. Really.

The next time you get a lecture from some liberal who thinks that the highest aspiration of America is to be Sweden (you may replace the name of Sweden with any other European country they might happen to mention), just point them to this study, showing that, in fact, the whole place is going crazy.

On Continuing to get Galileo Wrong: NCSE's Josh Rosenau still can't get science history right

After botching his science history in a post about Texas Governor Rick Perry, and having several people, including Yours Truly, call him on the carpet for it, Josh Roseau of the National Center for Science Education's Department of Historical Revisionism now writes a post trying to explain himself which basically ends up as a sort of data dump of everything he was able to find out about the Galileo incident on short notice and under the gun.

In a passing remark on the issue of whether global warming is caused by humans, Rick Perry had said, "Just because you have a group of scientists that stood up and said, this is the fact ... Galileo got outvoted for a spell." Rosenau responded by charging Perry, on the basis of that one statement, with endorsing "the legitimacy of letting religious and political authority suppress ('outvote,' in his words) scientific results." Then, going from the not very sublime to the clearly ridiculous, he declared:
By the time Galileo was publishing on heliocentrism, the idea was already circulating and widely accepted in scientific circles, including Jesuits. He wasn't outvoted by scientists, he was outvoted by the political and religious leadership of his country. [Emphasis in original]
Rosenau was then beset by several of his own natural allies who pointed out that he screwed up.

Rosenau partly tries to hang his hat on Perry not knowing what he was talking about. Yeah, well, there's not much argument there. Perry's a politician without a very good education in science or history and was speaking out of the side of his mouth. Rosenau tried to blow it up into some significant gaffe. What's amusing about it is that Perry got more right by accident than Rosenau got right speaking intentionally from his NCSE high horse.

Rosenau quotes Thony Christie saying that Perry was "speaking through his arse..." So if Perry was "speaking through his arse" and getting it largely right and Rosenau is speaking out of the more conventional orifice and getting it wrong, then, in the contest of competing orifices, Rosenau' mouth isn't comparing too well.

After beginning his post with his obligatory personal insults which he keeps repeating, hoping, in doing so, that it will make them true, he says, "[I]t's worth teasing out some of the history." Well, I suppose that's better than running roughshod over it like he did in his first post. And "teasing out" the history of the Galileo affair, had he actually done it, would have been better than what he actually does do, which is to practically torture it to death.

His new post begins promisingly, with indications that he is now listening to other people who actually know what happened in the Galileo affair and admissions that he got key points of his post wrong. But then, all of a sudden, the points he got wrong are not keys points any more. "I don't think this alters any of the basic results," he says. No it doesn't alter any of the basic results: it blows them out of the water.

Heliocentrism, he says, "was already circulating and widely accepted in scientific circles, including Jesuits." When it was pointed out that this was not true, Rosenau then says, "When Galileo's heliocentrism was first taken up by church authorities in 1610, heliocentrism didn't have wide support, but I don't think I claimed it did." "Widely accepted" doesn't mean "wide support"?

Not, apparently, in Josh's world.

No historian who delves below the level of popular legend on the Galileo controversy thinks that heliocentrism (and Copernicanism in particular) was a proven theory of how reality really was at the time Galileo pressed the issue in the early 1600s. But there were many scholars inside and outside the official church who accepted the heliocentric theory as a more useful mathematical construct than the Ptolemaic system--as a better way, in Bellarmine's terms to "save the appearances." In fact, most scholars seemed to realize the insufficiency of the Ptolemaic system and supported either Copernican heliocentrism or, more commonly, Tycho Brahe's geoheliocentrism (in which the earth and moon are stationary and the other planets revolve around the sun) as constructs that made better sense of the data.

Rosenau then launches on his version of the history of the debate over heliocentirism, presumably to back up his point that Galileo was "outvoted by the political and religious leadership of his country." He says the period of the acceptance of heliocentrism was "extended by Galileo's persecution in the1610s." Persecution? In what way was Galileo "persecuted" in the 1610s--particularly by the "political and religious leadership of his country"?

After becoming the "Chief Mathematician and Philosopher" to the Medicis, he went to Rome, where he received a hero's welcome. Fredrico Cesi gave him a banquet; Pope Paul V give him a friendly audience; the Jesuit Roman College had ceremonies all day. This was largely the treatment Galileo received from the very politicians and religious leadership Rosenau thinks were persecuting him. And he received this kind of adulatory treatment repeatedly throughout his career by the fashionable politicians of  his time.

He was equally well treated by the religious leaders. After Barberini became Pope, Galileo's stock rose even higher. "He had six long audiences with Urban in the course of six weeks," says Arthur Koestler in his great history of science, The Sleepwalkers:
The Pope showered favors on him--a pension for Galileo's son, a precious painting, a gold and sliver medal. He also provided him with a glowing testimonial, addressed to the new Grand Duke, extolling the virtues and piety "of this great man, whose fame shines in the heavens, and goes on earth far and wide."
The Jesuits, who were perhaps the most astronomically sophisticated group of the time, were also great admirers--until, that is, Galileo began showing his posterior. After a Jesuit astronomer and several others had published their discovery of sunspots, Galileo publicly attacked them and claimed he had discovered them first, saying he had witnesses to prove it, but refused to name any.  Whenever he heard that anyone had disagreed with him in private conversations, he sent them surly letters demanding explanations, most notably the Letter to Cassini. In the the whole debate his frequent method was to level personal attacks at his opponents, questioning their integrity, calling them names, and confusing the issue (no wonder Rosenau likes this guy).

"You cannot help it, Signor Sarsi," he wrote to the Pope's Chamberlain, "that it was granted to me alone to discover all the new phenomena in the sky and nothing to anybody else. This is the truth which neither malice nor envy can suppress."

It was all about Galileo all the time.

Was it the fact that people challenged him? Is this the "persecution" Rosenau refers to? In 1614 Father Niccolo Lorini filed a complaint against him to the Consultor for the Holy Office, but it was dismissed. Then, in 1615, a rabble rousing priest came to Rome to accuse him, but the same Holy Office ruled these complaints fabrications. "For the next 18 years," says Koestler, "Galileo lived honoured and unmolested, befriended by Pope Urban VIII and an impressive array of cardinals."

What precisely is this "persecution" Galileo suffered during this period? And who were the politicians and religious leaders who perpetrated it? The only physical danger Galileo was in was eating too much at all the dinner parties his admirers were constantly throwing for him.

And then we come to the decree of 1616, where Rosenau becomes completely confused.

He writes that Galileo "chafed" at restrictions the Church placed on him, "and the 1616 ruling of a jury of theologians who declared heliocentrism 'foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture,'" he says, "further constrained him."


Rosenau is apparently unaware that the document he is quoting from is the "Consultant's Report on Copernicanism," which was issued by the Qualifiers (or theologians) of the Holy Office who met on Feb. 23, 1616, and which was quickly overruled by a higher panel of cardinals--and only became public some 17 years later. Galileo was never even aware of it until 1633, when it was referenced in his trial.

How can you be "chafed" at a document you never even knew the existence of?

The document which was made public at the time and which Galileo did see was the ruling by the General Congregation of the Index, issued on March 5, 1616. But there was no mention of "heresy" in the decree of March 5 nor was there any mention of Galileo in it. In fact, it was not even directed at Galileo. And Galileo didn't seem to be particularly "chafed" about it, writing to Picchena, on the following June 3, "I am not in the least concerned..." In fact, six days after the decree was issued, Galileo was enjoying, by his own account, a pleasant audience with the Pope that lasted for three quarters of an hour.

When a rumor began making the rounds that Galileo had somehow been personally indicted in the decree, Cardinal Bellarmine, two months later, issued a formal declaration in Galileo's defense, pointing out that "Galileo has not abjured in our hands, or in the hands of others here in Rome, or anywhere else that we know, any opinion or doctrine of his." Ironically, this is in the very documentation Rosenau links to in his post!

Rosenau then makes the strange claim that the Church was simply trying to impose theological restrictions on Galileo that science could never overcome. He quotes the part of Cardinal Bellarmine's letter in which he discusses the distinction between Copernicanism as way to "save the appearances" and as a way to see the reality of the world (something I said in my post, but which Rosenau dismissed as whiggishness), and concludes:
Again, this is not a question of being outvoted by scientists, but of holding scientific claims up to theological standards, and to absurd ones at that. Bellarmine never suggests a way to demonstrate heliocentrism, nor is it clear why the burden should be on Galileo to supply both the empirical findings and a theological justification for them.
This is utter nonsense based on a selective use of sources. What Rosenau doesn't quote is the rest of the letter, in which Bellarmine says:
Third, I say that, if there were a real proof that the Sun is in the center of the universe, that the Earth is in the third sphere, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. [Emphasis mine]
This is not "holding scientific claims up to theological standards," this is a clear statement that the Church would be forced to change its theological position if scientific evidence turned up that rendered the previous theological interpretations mistaken. Rosenau has completely misrepresented Bellarmine and the Church's position.

Rosenau then says "Galileo's books built on solid observational science to argue that not only was heliocentric math easier, it better described the shape of the solar system."

Solid observational evidence?

Galileo repeatedly attacked those who agreed with him that heliocentrism was a more economical way to interpret the data of heavenly movements but disagreed with him that it was proven. In fact he finally ended up alienating most the Jesuits who had formerly supported him. When he was challenged by Bellarmine and others to prove his case he simply obfuscated the issue with personal attacks and rhetorical demonstrations that did nothing to supply a proof. He eventually raised the stakes so high by continuing to push the issue that he was forced to offer something.

What "solid observational evidence" did Galileo finally produced to prove heliocentrism as a reality?

His theory of tides.

Galileo had repeatedly hinted that he had the decisive physical proof of the Copernican theory, and it was the idea that the tides could be explained by the combined motions of the earth that caused the water to move at a different speed from the land. Never mind that Kepler had already figured out that the movement of the tides resulted from lunar gravity several years earlier, Galileo dismissed Kepler's idea as a superstition--just like he dismissed Tycho Brahe's largely correct view of comets, calling them "optical illusions."

He also argued tried to establish heliocentrism on the basis of a spurious theory of sunspots.

Galileo produced no "solid observational evidence" for heliocentrism and to say so is to demonstrate an utter lack of knowledge of the facts of the case. The only thing "solid" about Galileo's evidence is that it was solidly wrong.

"Copernicanism was a slogan," says Koestler, "but not a defendable system of astronomy." As E. A. Burtt says in The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science:
It is safe to say that even had there been no religious scruples whatever against the Copernican astronomy, sensible men all over Europe, especially the most empirically minded, would have pronounced it a wild appeal to accept the premature fruits of an uncontrolled imagination, in preference to the solid inductions, built up gradually through the ages of men's confirmed sense experience ... Contemporary empiricists, had the lived in the 16th century, would have been the first to scoff out of court the new philosophy of the universe.
And then of course, there was the problem with the stellar parallax, a problem which Galileo just avoided: If the earth really orbited round the sun, then, given the beliefs at the time in regard to the distance of the stars, the stars should have appeared to move in relation to the earth. They didn't. It was only in the 19th century that this problem was resolved.

"The truth is," says Koestler, "after his sensational discoveries in 1610, Galileo neglected both observational research and astronomic theory in favour of his propaganda crusade. By the time he wrote the Dialogue he had lost touch with new developments in that field, and forgotten even what Copernicus had said."

Despite the fact that Galileo did not have proof of heliocentrism (nor did anyone else at the time), he tried to claim that the burden of proof was on those who disagreed with it. Go figure. It was a silly gambit that Bellarmine threw back in his face, resulting in the spurious tides theory.

Finally, at his trial, Galileo defended himself at his trial by simply lying. After writing his Dialogue on the Great World Systems (which Galileo wanted to call Dialogue on the Flux and Reflux of the Tides, highlighting what would later be shown to be his mistaken view of tides, but which the Pope convinced him, in an attempt to help him, to rename), in which he clearly argued for Copernicanism as an explanation of reality, he denied that that's what he had done.

"... I held," he said, "as I still hold, as most true and indisputable the opinion of Ptolemy, that is to say, the stability of the earth." He knew he was lying and the Inquisitors knew he was lying. But, as Church officials had continually done throughout the history of the dispute: they gave him a break. They could have easily convicted him of perjury and imprisoned him, but they didn't. "And as nothing further could be done in execution of the decree," said the Inquisitors, "his signature was obtained to his deposition and he was sent back."

Was the Church wrong in putting him on trial? Probably. But the Church attempted in numerous ways to avoid a confrontation and Galileo did everything in his power to provoke it. After tricking the Pope by breaking an agreement concerning the publication of his book and publicly embarrassing him, Urban (not one of the better popes mind you) finally had had it. But all they basically did was to embarrass Galileo. They shouldna oughta done it. But historically speaking, the motivation was at least understandable.

What is clear, however, is that the real story is nothing like it is portrayed in the popular accounts.

What happened to him? He was sentenced to ... reject the Copernican opinion (which he already claimed he had done), and say weekly for three years to come the seven penitential Psalms.

Oh, and then there's that little matter of "imprisonment," a term Rosenau uses to characterize what happened to him afterward although, and then in another part of the post, in typical Rosenauian fashion, he says he wasn't. In fact, he went to the Grand Duke's villa at Trinita del Monte where he was furnished with an apartment "covered in silk and most richly furnished." Then he returned to his farm and later to his house in Florence. Not exactly what you call "hard time."

And those penitential Psalms? He had his daughter say them for him.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The liberal's favorite economist said social security based on a "Ponzi" scheme

Is Rick Perry really out in political left field because he called social security a "Ponzi scheme"? That's what many liberal commentators have charged. But Harvard economist Greg Mankiw has dug up a gem of the quote from the most influential liberal economist of the late 20th century, Paul Samuelson, the Keynesian economist who authored of the most popular economics textbook of all time: Economics: An Introductory Analysis.

When I was studying economics at the University of California in the early 1980s, Samuelson's book was reviled by the monetarists--and worshiped by the Kenynesians--who peopled the economics department there. Samuelson was Keynes' bulldog. Here is Samuelson, in a remark that was intended, ironically, as a compliment to social security, using the "P" word:

The beauty of social insurance is that it is actuarially unsound. Everyone who reaches retirement age is given benefit privileges that far exceed anything he has paid in -- exceed his payments by more than ten times (or five times counting employer payments)! 
How is it possible? It stems from the fact that the national product is growing at a compound interest rate and can be expected to do so for as far ahead as the eye cannot see. Always there are more youths than old folks in a growing population. 
More important, with real income going up at 3% per year, the taxable base on which benefits rest is always much greater than the taxes paid historically by the generation now retired. 
Social Security is squarely based on what has been called the eighth wonder of the world -- compound interest. A growing nation is the greatest Ponzi game ever contrived.
Read the rest here.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Rick Perry: 1, NCSE: 0: National Center for Science Education official flubs his science history in critique of Rick Perry

In last night's Republican candidates debate at the Reagan library, Texas Governor Rick Perry suggested that climate science was still unsettled on the issue of human-induced global warming. In his answer to a media panelist's question, he compared the current question of whether humans are unquestionably causing global warming to Galileo's situation in relation to the scientific community and the Church of the 17th century: "'Just because you have a group of scientists that stood up and said, this is the fact'," said Perry, "… Galileo got outvoted for a spell."

You just knew Scientoids would be all over this. Sure enough, here they come. And in the battle to preserve the myths of scientific history, who should be the first to show up for duty but the National Center for Science Education's Josh Rosenau, who claims Perry got it wrong:
His opening passage, like his comments on evolution, seem to forthrightly endorse the legitimacy of letting religious and political authority suppress ("outvote," in his words) scientific results. By the time Galileo was publishing on heliocentrism, the idea was already circulating and widely accepted in scientific circles, including Jesuits. He wasn't outvoted by scientists, he was outvoted by the political and religious leadership of his country. [Emphasis in original]
Not only did Perry not get it wrong, he got it more right that Rosenau.

For one thing, was Perry necessarily saying that the majority rules in science? If he was (which, I'm sorry, just isn't clear here), then he would be in no worse a position than defenders of Darwinist dogmatism and Meteorological End Times like Rosenau, who regularly point to the level of support among those working in their fields as evidence that their beliefs are true. If there's something wrong with Perry doing it, then why isn't there something wrong with scientists doing it?

Secondly, let's look at Josh's claim about Galileo. For one thing, he assumes that the issue of the Galileo episode was the truth of the heliocentrism. Where is my wrong answer buzzer? Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with what happened between Galileo and the Church (as opposed to the historical myths about it) knows that this was not the issue. The issue was the epistemological status of the theory--whether it was a legitimate hypothesis or a proven fact. At the time of the controversy, it was not a proven fact and there were a number of unanswered problems with it--a fact acknowledged by both scientists (such as they were) and Church officials.

Galileo was, by all accounts, a reckless and arrogant controversialist who demanded that others accept his theories before he had adequately documented them, and demanded that his theological views be acknowledged as legitimate despite his demonstrable lack of expertise in the field. In fact, he was so reckless and arrogant, he managed even to alienate his friends.

So when we come to Josh's final point that "He wasn't outvoted by scientists, he was outvoted by the political and religious leadership of his country," we are taken from a complete misunderstanding of history to a complete misrepresentation of it: The political and religious leadership of Galileo's day opposed heliocentrism.


In reality most of the scientists of the time opposed it, since most of the university scholars working in what was then natural philosophy (it wasn't even called "science" until the 19th century) believed in a version of Aristotelian teaching that precluded Copernicanism. Church officials of the time largely accepted Copernicus' theory as better fitting the data than the Ptolemaic theory, but were content to let the scholars duke it out. And a number of high Church officials not only didn't oppose Galileo's heliocentrism, but encouraged his writings on the issue, include a future pope.

One of the ironies here is that one of the things the Church was defending was proper scientific methodology: you have to actually prove your theories, and until they are proven, you need to keep your powder dry.

Next thing you know, Josh will be passing along the historical canard that Galileo was tortured for his beliefs and burned at the stake.

The NCSE gets a booby prize here. Score the win for Perry.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Four Religions

James Kalb, the author of the incredible Tyranny of Liberalism, on the "four religions:

  • Liberalism: A single human world ordered only by reason, based on pure (content-free) concepts. Freedom says you ignore the content of human goals and promote all of them simply as such, and equality says you ignore the content of human qualities so you treat all men as equal in value. Put them together and you get liberalism.
  • Islam: A single human world ordered by pure will. There’s no place for reason, since God, who acts by arbitrary choice and is not bound by reason, is the immediate cause of everything.
  • Judaism: Two parallel human worlds, the public world everyone is part of that can be appropriately ordered by pure reason, and a private Jewish world ordered by will in the form of a contract between God and the Jewish people that imposes arbitrary conditions like keeping kosher.
  • Catholicism: Two human worlds, the order of nature and the order of grace, that are conceptually distinct but cannot be separated without violence because they are part of a single rational divine order: grace completes nature, and is meant for all.

Read the rest here.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Newest Left Wing Conspiracy Theory

The grocery store shelves may have been cleaned off. Supplies of water may be running low. Batteries may be hard to find. No, it's not fear of hurricanes and floods: it's liberals in panic mode because they think the theocrats are coming.

Remember Hilary's Vast Right Wing Conspiracy? Well, now there's a new conspiracy. Here is Terry Gross, host of NPR's "Fresh Air" waxing paranoidal:
An emerging Christian movement that seeks to take dominion over politics, business and culture in preparation for the end times and the return of Jesus is establishing a presence in American politics. The leaders are considered apostles and prophets, gifted by God for this role.

The international apostolic and prophetic movement was named the New Apostolic Reformation, or NAR, by its leading architect, C. Peter Wagner. My guest, Rachel Tabachnick, has been researching and writing about this movement. She says although the movement is larger than the network of apostles organized by Wagner, and not all those connected with the movement describe themselves as part of Wagner’s NAR, the apostles and prophets of the movement have an identifiable ideology that separates them from other evangelicals.
The occasion for all the alarm bells are two articles, one by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker, in which he dredges up a relatively obscure school of evangelical thought and somehow reads it into Michelle Bachman's campaign platform, and another by Michelle Goldberg at Newsweek, who extrapolates the Plot For A Theocratic Takeover Of The United States Government to include Texas Governor Rick Perry.

These writers purport to have discovered disturbing indications of the covert influence of something called "Dominionism," which in its weak form is simply the belief that Christians should take their values into the voting booth, and in its strong form is that, well, that you should take your religiously-based values into the voting booth--but that you should be up front about the fact that your doing it.

The strong form of Dominionism scares liberals. The weak form scares them even more because they can convince themselves that it's conspiratorial and  get themselves all worked up about it.

The general paranoid drift of these articles is that, lurking underneath the apparent mainstream evangelical beliefs of some Republican candidates is the plan to spring a theocracy on the voters once they are elected, thereby helping to bring about the Second Coming.

We may just be facing the prospect of hypersensitive liberals building bomb shelters and storing canned food and ammunition in order to ride out the coming takeover by apocalyptic evangelicals. There should be some special name for people who think we should all take shelter because other people think the end is near.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Fountain of Youth is bad for your health

Would immortality be a blessing or a curse? The New York Times asks the question and then confuses immortality here on earth with the afterlife promised by some religions (which presumes death). If the author would had read Tuck Everlasting rather than consulting a "study," he would have been a lot better off.