He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Anthropomorphosis of Science

A number of atheists I've dialogued with or whose debates I've observed in the past have pointed out that it's not fair to give credit to God for the events we like and not blame God for the events we don't like.  Which is odd, because plenty of people do blame God for events that they don't like.  Most theists have probably been angry at God for precisely that reason at some point in life.

Some of the more philosophically sophisticated atheists chose to point out instead that it wasn't fair to give credit to God for what one's surgeon had done to save one's life.  Instead of giving credit to the proximate cause of our healing (a good surgeon with good tools), we superstitious theists would invoke the ultimate cause of the universe that we called God, anthropomorphizing distant forces that we didn't actually understand.

It is with this background that I've observed the rhetoric around the recent March for Science.  Undoubtedly, plenty of those who are part of the March for Science are theists.  Many theists are scientific realists right along with most atheists.  I certainly was.

But it is not just theists who engage in anthropomorphizing abstract causes which are not proximate to the outcome.  Exhibit A from the March for Science coverage is an article in Salon which is entitled, "Science saved my life" and contains a genuinely touching description of how science kept her from going down a dangerous path of addiction and an unfulfilling life.

It's not very different from the AA or NA testimonies I've read or heard in person.  But instead of finding God being the cause of her ability to relinquish her addiction, it was finding science.

Except, it wasn't science in an abstract sense that she found.  She had an encounter with methodical, practical learning, the pursuit of knowledge which gradually drew her out of her reliance on old addictions as coping mechanisms.  And she fell in love with this kind of learning, the grand unveiling of the mysteries of the universe insofar as we tiny-brained hominids can unveil them.

Like most people who found something more enticing than an addiction to alcohol, or marijuana, or prescription painkillers, or various other and more profoundly mind-altering substances, our erstwhile convert to scientific realism attributes her transformation to the system of ideas abstracted into one concept rather than just owning that she found something healthier than her old addictions to shape her life.

Just as my grandfather attributed his abandonment of his old addictions to his finding religion, the author attributes her abandonment of those same old addictions to finding science.  This is, of course, not a bad thing to find something healthier to replace our addictions.  Even if the replacement is just as addictive and we are overly attached to it, it may nonetheless be far less damaging than our old addictions.

This should indeed be celebrated rather than being mourned.  I'm genuinely glad that she found science and that it allowed her to be freed of those old addictions to transient pleasures.

At the same time, I can't ignore that this is part of a broader trend.  The popular conception of science, like the popular conception of God, has become reductively abstracted and oddly anthropomorphic.

Science is now treated more frequently as a causal explanation ("It's science!" a la Bill Nye and memes) rather than a body of methodologies that gradually allow us to uncover our numerous errors about the world and our experience of it.

Science is no longer that unpopular but necessary discipline for discovery and innovation that codifies the best of human learning heuristics into a broad field of study, it's become a popular invocation of epistemological authority.  We can see this in a variety of other popular memes.

As someone who is very pro-science, who wants to support science education, scientific research, and political decision-making more informed by science, this trend is a troubling one.  When religion becomes a tool used to make claims unthinkingly (and simultaneously authoritatively) such that it's difficult to question it, that's a serious problem for free inquiry.

And what I see today is science being used the same way religion has been by people who have a poor and popular understanding of it, so I worry that scientific inquiry may be compromised by a popular perception of it completely at odds with the free inquiry it ought to manifest and indeed fulfill.

This is why I'm generally opposed to the anthropomorphosis of science.

Related:  The Benefit of Doubt: The Question of Science

Note:  The above is a picture I took of part of one of my science fair trophies.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Orthodoxy: The Voyeur

This past year, I read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton after many years of my friends recommending it to me.  My reading list is rather lengthy, both in terms of the actual word count of the books and the number of books on my list to read at some point.  Fortunately, Orthodoxy is a fairly short book of only 154 pages in the edition I purchased, and the font size is not tiny as it would be if the publisher were trying to cram more words into fewer pages.

In the chapter entitled "The Suicide of Thought" which follows "The Maniac", Chesterton expands on his previous themes, one of which is the mind sharpened to a single, painful point.

"The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good.  It is full of wild and wasted virtues.  When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose.  The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage.  But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage.  The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.  The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.  Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless.  Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful."

Chesterton observes that virtues untethered from the ground of the divine life of love are prone to err recklessly.  Virtues, when adhered to closely without being balanced by other important virtues, become terrible and tyrannical.  They overwhelm the moral sense of an individual, allowing him to carry out horrible acts of extremism with the best of intentions.  The rationalist can easily reason his way to genocide when no other virtues than rationality get in his way.

The scientist can easily experiment indifferently on the poor and vulnerable when the automobile of the pursuit of knowledge has no moral brakes on it, when finding the truth is the only virtue and no room is left for the movement of the heart to shift him away from hurting those who need the most healing.

"For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity.  He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive.  Mr. Blatchford is not only an early Christian, he is the only early Christian who ought really to have been eaten by lions.  For in his case the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy would mean mere anarchy.  He really is the enemy of the human race--because he is so human.  As the other extreme, we may take the acrid realist, who has deliberately killed in himself all human pleasure in happy tales or in the healing of the heart.  Torquemada tortured people physically for the sake of moral truth.  Zola tortured people morally for the sake of physical truth.  But in Torquemada's time there was at least a system that could to some extent make righteousness and peace kiss each other.  Now they do not even bow."

Even the virtue of charity, the virtue divine, the virtue par excellence, becomes a terrible shadow of itself when detached from other virtues which keep it in balance.  Mercy, rather than being the virtue of pardoning the sinner, when out of balance becomes the vice of failing to recognize when we have sinned.  Charity, rather than being the virtue that allows one to love one's neighbor as oneself, when out of balance becomes the vice of making excuses for one's neighbor as one makes excuses for one's self.

Chesterton's next example is about what happens when a virtue gets misplaced, not in the sense of being lost from us, but rather when we use an important virtue outside of the context in which it is truly valuable.

"But a much stronger case than these two of truth and pity can be found in the remarkable case of the dislocation of humility.
It is only with one aspect of humility that we are here concerned.  Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man.  He was always outstripping his mercies with his own newly invented needs.  His very power of enjoyment destroyed half his joys.  By asking for pleasure, he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise.  Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small.  Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility.  Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility.  Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the creations of humility.  For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we.  All this gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom entirely humble.  It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything--even pride."

Chesterton rightly explains that humility is a virtue that helps keep our egos in check so that we can mitigate our destructive self-assurance.  Also, that humility is a necessary ingredient for wonder and the building of things which are wondrous precisely because we are humbled by them.

"But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place.  Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition.  Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be.  A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.  Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert--himself.  The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt--the Divine Reason.  
Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature.  But the new skeptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn.  Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time.  The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic.  The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on.  For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder.  But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether."

Chesterton mentions Nietzsche a fair amount later in this chapter, and this is fitting given that Nietzsche's critique of a worthless skepticism has some important things in common with Chesterton's critique of the same.

"We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.  We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own.  Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced.  The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance."

Both Chesterton and Nietzsche see that the modern skeptic so easily falls into an unwillingness to risk, to commit, to let his "Yes!" mean "Yes!"  and "No!" mean "No!"  The modern skeptic timidly slouches his way beyond sensible epistemological humility and refrains politely from having strong opinions on important matters (at least ostensibly).  His mind remains so open that he never manages to get anything worth having into it for any length of time, so open that it may as well be closed.

 After all, the open-minded skeptic who never settles on any truths is no better off intellectually than the close-minded bigot who never allows his mind to be infiltrated by truths previously unknown to him.  Both are effectively cut off from any growth of the mind because they refuse to let anything be planted there long enough to sprout.

"To sum up our contention so far, we may say that the most characteristic current philosophies have not only a touch of mania, but a touch of suicidal mania.  The mere questioner has knocked his head against the limits of human thought; and cracked it.  This is what makes so futile the warnings of the orthodox and the boasts of the advanced about the dangerous boyhood of free thought.  What we are looking at is not the boyhood of free thought; it is the old age and ultimate dissolution of free thought.  It is vain for bishops and pious bigwigs to discuss what dreadful things will happen if wild scepticism runs its course.  It has run its course.  It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin.  We have seen it end.
It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself.  You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves.  You cannot fancy a more sceptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world.  It might certainly have reached its bankruptcy more quickly and cleanly if it had not been feebly hampered by the application of indefensible laws of blasphemy or by the absurd pretense that modern England is Christian.  But it would have reached the bankruptcy anyhow.  Militant atheists are still unjustly persecuted; but rather because they are an old minority than because they are a new one.  
Free thought has exhausted its own freedom.  It is weary of its own success.  If any eager freethinker now hails philosophic freedom as the dawn, he is only like the man in Mark Twain who came out wrapped in blankets to see the sun rise and was just in time to see it set."

Both Nietzsche and Chesterton agree that this dead and worthless skepticism is not life-giving, and indeed may be well be deadly for the mind, the soul, and even the body.  It is, in short, suicidal for free thought to take as its axiom (or its conclusion) that thought has no telos, no chance of reaching a truth upon which our minds might settle.

Where Chesterton parts ways with Nietzsche is on the pre-eminent importance of the will, and he critiques Nietzsche on that point:

"All the will-worshippers, from Nietzsche to Mr. Davidson, are really quite empty of volition.  They cannot will, they can hardly wish.  And if any one wants a proof of this, it can be found quite easily.  It can be found in this fact: that they always talk of will as something that expands and breaks out.  But it is quite the opposite.  Every act of will is an act of self-limitation.  To desire action is to desire limitation.  In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice.  When you choose anything, you reject everything else.
That objection, which men of this school used to make to the act of marriage, is really an objection to every act.  Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion.  Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses.  If you become King of England, you give up the post of Beadle in Brompton.  If you go to Rome, you sacrifice a rich suggestive life in Wimbledon.  It is the existence of this negative or limiting side of will that makes most of the talk of the anarchic will-worshippers little better than nonsense.  For instance, Mr. John Davidson tells us to have nothing to do with "Thou shalt not"; but it is surely obvious that "Thou shalt not" is only one of the necessary corollaries of "I will.""

But he agrees with Nietzsche on the importance of a robust intellectual life.  Clearly, Chesterton was an intellectual and valued the rational work of the mind, and yet he recognizes that while it may be necessary for many people, it is not sufficient to live the life of greatness.

He draws on the life of a well-known and controversial Saint to use in an illustrative comparison:

"Joan of Arc was not stuck at the crossroads, either by rejecting all paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche.  She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt.  Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them.  I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back.  Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret.
And then I thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche, and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time.  I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms.  Well, Joan of Arc had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not praise fighting, but fought.  We know that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow.  Tolstoy only praised that peasant; she was the peasant.  Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior.
She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other.  Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing."

Joan of Arc was many things, but she was no mere voyeur, no wild speculator who is constantly exhorting others to take the great actions she was not willing to take.  She acted decisively and changed the world.  She risked big, won big, and lost big too.

The sexual voyeur is the man who gazes hungrily, longing to satisfy his hunger while focused on the object of his desires.  But he isn't willing to take the risk of the pursuit, the risk of committing to that which he desires, perhaps because it might make demands on him.  After all, to commit to actualizing his desires requires giving up many others.

Most of us know to avoid being entangled with a voyeur, because a fulfilling relationship with the voyeur is not an option with one who only wants to watch.  But we may not know to avoid his cousin, the intellectual voyeur.

Chesterton warns us against the intellectual voyeur, the constant skeptic, the man who is willing to look hungrily at all sorts of beliefs, longing to satisfy his hunger for truth, but who is unwilling to risk committing himself to live those beliefs with boldness, and perhaps because it would make too many demands on him.  He would indeed have to give up many other beliefs to do so, and this is an onerous burden to one who is comfortable just examining them at a distance.

Just as we avoid being entangled with the voyeur, we ought to keep ourselves from becoming the voyeur.  May we all follow the path of greatness, boldly committing ourselves to believe hard and work hard for those beliefs, never to become comfortable with just watching.

I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy. -- G.K. Chesterton

Note: The above is an image I captured of the cover of my copy of the book being reviewed here.