Do You Even Science, Frater?

The other day, I went to a Thomistic Society talk about Aquinas’s views on the Problem of Evil and other topics. At one point, the presenter casually mentioned that humans engage in self-destructive behavior, like alcoholism, self-mutilation, drug addiction, etc., while non-human animals don’t.

That made my [citation needed] sense tingle, so I looked around. Among other things, I found Animal models of self-destructive behavior and suicide:

Research on nonhuman primates has demonstrated that self-mutilation is a common reaction to extreme disruptions of parental caretaking in other mammalian species as well. For example, isolated young rhesus monkeys engage in self-biting and head slapping and banging (21). Analgesia is also common in self-destructive animals.

Or this non-scholarly page about the effects of drugs, including addiction, in animals such as horses, goats, and even bees.

So apparently this speaker simply wasn’t aware of self-destructive behavior in non-human animals. I don’t remember what her point was, so it might have been a minor thing, but still, it wasn’t true.


But this brought to mind the previous Thomistic Institute talk I went to: there, the presenter casually mentioned that humans engage in abstract reasoning, while animals don’t.

Again, this didn’t seem quite right. This study from 2007 involved teaching dogs to push a button when shown a set of pictures of dogs, and another button when shown a set of pictures of landscapes.

Interestingly, presentation of pictures providing contradictive information (novel dog pictures mounted on familiar landscape pictures) did not disrupt performance, which suggests that the dogs made use of a category-based response rule with classification being coupled to category-relevant features (of the dog) rather than to item-specific features (of the background).

Or this paper, entitled simply Concept Learning in Animals, whose abstract says:

We suggest that several of the major varieties of conceptual classes claimed to be uniquely human are also exhibited by nonhuman animals. We present evidence for the formation of several sorts of conceptual stimulus classes by nonhuman animals: perceptual classes involving classification according to the shared attributes of objects, associative classes or functional equivalences in which stimuli form a class based on common associations, relational classes, in which the conceptual relationship between or among stimuli defines the class, and relations between relations, in which the conceptual (analogical) relationship is defined by the relation between classes of stimuli. We conclude that not only are nonhuman animals capable of acquiring a wide variety of concepts, but that the underlying processes that determine concept learning are also likely to be quite similar.

No one will deny that humans can perform mental feats that non-human animals can’t, as far as we can tell. Other animals can’t play chess, prove mathematical theorems, or form complex sentences, as far as I know. But at the same time, the issue isn’t a black-and-white “humans can reason abstractly and animals can’t.”


Lastly, I’ve written at length about Thomist Edward Feser, and his ignorance of science from Newton on up.

Individually, each of these mistakes are just that: mistakes. Or ignorance: philosophers can’t be expected to be masters of nuclear physics or animal cognition. Or simplifications that gloss over a complex idea in order to make a broader point.

But collectively, I do see a pattern of Thomists being wrong on matters of science in a thousand small ways. That suggests that either they don’t bother checking whether their beliefs are true, where possible, and correct their errors, or else they have other beliefs that lead them to erroneous conclusions. And either way, if I can’t trust them on the small stuff, why should I believe them on the big stuff?

 

Hell Is a School, Apparently

By now, you’ve all seen this T-shirt, which began circulating approximately several years before 17 people were killed at Stoneman Douglas High School, in Florida:

T-shirt: "Dear God, why do you allow violence in schools?" "I'm not allowed in schools. -- God"

As many people have pointed out, the implication is that, against all theology, God—or at least the God of sanctimonious T-shirt wearers—is not omnipresent. That a simple legislative measure is sufficient to banish God from a place.

But if you point this out, or indeed dare to make fun of a religious idea, institution, or person in a public forum, you’ll see veiled threats of hell:

godly comments

I’ve found that Christians far prefer veiled threats over overt ones. I think they’re uncomfortable with their own beliefs, and prefer to skate around them. Or maybe what they believe deep down isn’t what they believe in public. At any rate, the usual response I get is that Hell, in the afterlife, is simply an absence of God.

So, it’s like a school, I guess.

I’ve attended public school, and I still go there, for special events. I’ve never seen a pitchfork or smelled a lake of molten sulfur (and if there were, I’m sure there’d be railings so you didn’t fall in accidentally).

But really, if The Bad Afterlife is like being in an American public school, then sure, I’ll take that. It sounds an awful lot like ordinary life right now.

Prescriptivist Christianity

I’ve been called a Grammar Nazi. I don’t call myself that, but I will cop to “grammar cop”, “pedant”, “stickler”, and other descriptors and epithets in that vein.

And one argument that I’ve run into over and over is that language evolves over time, an argument bolstered by the fact that most English dictionaries are descriptivist, not prescriptivist. That is, they don’t tell you how you’re supposed to use a word (the way the Académie Française does with the French language); rather, lexicographers study how people actually use words, and compile their observations into dictionaries. Thus, it does me no good to complain that “beg the question” means “assume one’s conclusion”: if most anglophones mean “raise the question” when they say it, and understand it that way when they hear it, then in practice, “beg the question” means “raise the question”. Sucks to be me.

But one thing I hear quite often is “that’s not very Christian”. In what might be considered a technical win for bipartisanship, I hear this from both ends of our new bicolored political spectrum. Things that are “not very Christian” can include lying, watching porn, bragging, refusing to help someone, lack of empathy, and much more.

Which brings me to this:


which links to a WaPo article entitled, “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort”.

So for once, I”m going to put on my descriptivist hat and say that no, if large numbers of Christians do X, then X is Christian. Do you want “Christian” to be synonymous with “good”? Are you annoyed that people think hating on gays and brown-skinned people is Christian? Then stop tarnishing the brand.

Of Course BillDo Endorses the Nashville Statement. What Did You Expect?

Bill Donohue, aka Our Lady of Perpetual Aneurysm, has issued a statement in support of the Nashville Statement, a non-binding statement by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood to say, in brief, that it intends to keep its sexual mores anchored in the 18th century for as long as humanly possible.

BillDo writes:

“Hateful,” “homophobic,” “anti-LGBT” are among the hysterical condemnations of the statement flying around print, broadcast and social media. But the statement is none of those things.

Unless, of course, you consider statements like

WE DENY that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.

to be somehow anti-LGBT. And besides,

the statement does not single out homosexual or transgender persons. It emphasizes that all human beings are called to “chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage,”

See? It doesn’t say that only gay and trans people are horrible and should live lives devoid of sex. All they need to do is to get married. To someone they’re not attracted to, per Article 1. Because God ordained one-man/one-woman sex specifically so that evangelicals wouldn’t get funny feelings in their down-there areas.

Of course, BillDo belongs to an organization that considers suffering to be a gift from God, so his opinions may or may not match yours.

What’s Missing in the George Pell Story?

It’s just come to light that Cardinal George Pell is going to appear in court in Australia on sexual assault charges. Good. It’s about damn time.

But what I’m not seeing in all of the coversage I’ve read so far is any mention of the church cooperating with the investigation. They are not, as far as I can tell, sending along any documents showing where Pell may have been at the relevant times, any notes from his personnel files, letters to his past, present, or future supervisors or colleagues.

Credit where credit is due: the Catholic church in Montreal has started a program whereby priests and church volunteers will be fingerprinted before being allowed to work with children and other vulnerable people, and will not be left alone with them. And this seems to be voluntary, as a result of public outcry stemming from earlier sex crimes, but not imposed by a court. So bravo. However, this is just a local program.

The church as a whole still has not come clean, and continues to impede criminal investigations. So don’t let anyone tell you that the scandal is over, because the coverup continues.

Pope Accused of Covering Up Child Rape in Argentina

Just a reminder that the Catholic Church’s child-abuse coverup scandal isn’t over.

According to Le Monde (in French only; sorry. But here’s a story from last year about this case), lawyers are accusing the Catholic church of covering up child rape and abuse in Italy and Argentina, the current pope’s old stomping grounds. Not only that, but they say that Jorge Bergoglio, now better known as Pope Francis, was personally warned about fifteen abusive priests in 2014, and that he did nothing.
One of the victims claims to have given a copy of the letter to the pope in person, in 2015. So this isn’t ancient history, and it can’t be blamed on the previous administration.
The current case involves children at the Provolo Institute for the Deaf in Mendoza, Argentina. Not only were the victims children, which is bad enough, but they were deaf, meaning that they had additional difficulties making themselves understood, since sometimes even their own parents didn’t know sign.
Although the Catholic church has allegedly conducted its own investigation, it hasn’t shared its results with the Argentine authorities. In other words, the Catholic church was shielding child abusers from justice, as of just a few years ago.
That makes it a criminal organization. If you’re still a Catholic, why?

A Modest Proposal for Anti-Abortion Catholics (and Some Others)

When I recently ran across yet another of BillDo’s rants against abortion, I was struck by an idea: during transubstantiation, a priest turns a piece of bread into living flesh. But surely this is a reversible operation, no? People turn living wheat into nonliving bread all the time.

In addition, if there’s any kind of conservation law, the after centuries of Catholic rites, there’s bound to be mountains of bread accumulating somewhere, that could be put to good use.

So I propose the following: if a woman wants an abortion, a priest can cast a reverse-transubstantiation spell, and turn the fetus into a piece of bread. And then the abortion can proceed normally.

If Catholic priests can’t or won’t do this, then I’ll do it. I’m ordained, and I have as much evidence to back up my supernatural claims as they do.