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.

The Last Superstition: Conclusion

So now that we’ve come to the end of the book, what have we learned? There are two comments that stick in my mind. One is by Steve Watson:

I think Aristotle systematized a lot of what we now call folk physics and folk biology, which was a good enough way to start, back then

While neither Steve nor I offer any data to support this, I think it’s a pretty good explanation: a lot of what Aristotle thought, or at least what Feser reports as Aristotle’s belief, reads like someone trying to systematize what he saw around him — what would later become physics — but handicapped by not having observational tools like microscopes, or even mental tools like the scientific method.
The other comment is at Chris Hallquist’s blog, by reader Patrick:

[Feser] interacts with people in two ways. 1) Patiently explaining what Augustinian metaphysics is, in the apparently belief that if he just explains in sufficient detail, people will have an “Aha!” moment and come around. 2) Railing at them in rage because, in spite of all his explanations, they refuse to admit that Augustinian metaphysics are self evidently true. Obviously, since Augustinian metaphysics are self evidently true per hypothesis, the only explanation for someone’s refusal to admit that they’re true is either astounding stupidity and ignorance, or else a willful and culpable refusal to publicly admit what they know to be true.

This comes through well in The Last Superstition. For all his explanations of Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas, he fails to answer a lot of elementary questions, like how we can find out which Forms an object instantiates. This makes sense if he thinks what he’s explaining is obvious, and can’t see it from an outsider’s perspective.
As for his attitude toward people who don’t agree with him, well, I’ve mentioned Feser’s tone a few times. Suffice it to say that I agree with Patrick.

But beyond the book itself, what else can we learn?
I was originally surprised at the number of positive reviews the book got on Amazon, given the number of elementary fallacies Feser commits. But in retrospect, it makes sense: like all successful apologists, Feser is good at reassuring people who already hold religious beliefs that it’s okay to hold those beliefs. This is partly due to what Steve Watson pointed out above: that Aristotle tried to formalize folk science. That is, Feser is able not only to present a framework of ideas rather than a grab-bag of intuitions, he can also recruit one of the biggest names in philosophy to lend weight to his argument.

Finally, I think this book is useful for its insight into someone else’s mind. In particular, it seems to me that Platonic Forms (and Aristotle’s essences) are a type of essentialism. There are (at least) two ways of looking at the world: one is that things are whatever they are, and it’s up to us to draw boundaries; some things are worth calling “triangle”, and some aren’t. A triangle drawn with straightedge and pencil may not be perfect, but it can still be called a triangle; but at some point, a chalk doodle is so different from a perfect triangle that it no longer deserves the name. A person who hasn’t eaten meat for a day probably shouldn’t be called a vegetarian, but someone who hasn’t eaten meat for ten years probably should. That is, sometimes there are clear ways to define the categories that interest us, while at other times we need to draw arbitrary lines. But ultimately, it’s up to us.

The other view is that the categories are already there, and have been since the beginning of time. We merely need to figure out which category an item belongs in. In my experience, a lot of creationists think this way: they can’t grasp the idea of new species appearing, because to them, if the descendants of a fish are so different as to not be worth calling fish anymore, then they must be in one of the other categories: dogs, or birds, or dinosaurs, or something.

Likewise, as Feser argues, if you see a three-week-old fetus and a thirty-year-old woman as having the same human essence, as their single most important characteristic, then it’s easy to see abortion as murder.

So while I don’t think the book adds to my understanding of either science or philosophy, it is useful in understanding how a lot of people on the right think.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: The Final Insult

Chapter 6: Irreducible teleology, cont.

Having exoriated biologists over the fact that popular science writers use terms like “purpose” and “blueprint”, Feser moves on to nonliving systems, in which he also sees purpose and intentionality. For instance, the water and rock cycles (I’d never heard of a “rock cycle” before, but okay):

The role of condensation in the water cycle, for example, is to bring about precipitation; the role of pressure in the rock cycle is, in conjunction with heat, to contribute to generating magma, and in the absence of heat to contribute to generating sedimentary rock; and so forth. Each stage has the production of some particular outcome or range of outcomes as an “end” or “goal” toward which it points. [p. 258]

Here, Feser implies that the water cycle is supposed to exist, and condensation exists to further that goal. Likewise, of course you have to have pressure, otherwise how can you have magma? It seems as though he is projecting his opinions onto the world so hard that he can’t imagine that maybe water does what water does, and it’s only because the temperature on the surface of this planet oscillates in a certain range that allows water to behave in such an interesting fashion.

Basic laws of nature

Moving on to fundamental science, Feser graces us with a rather interesting idea of how minds work:

Mental images are vague and indistinct when their objects are complex or detailed, but the related concepts or ideas are clear and distinct regardless of their complexity; for example, the concept of a chiliagon, or 1000-sided figure, is clearly different from the concept of a 999-sided figure, even though a mental image of a chiliagon is no different from a mental image of a 999-sided figure. [p. 260]

I’m not quite sure what he’s trying to say, though the best spin I can put on it is that we have trouble imagining complex things clearly. I agree, and this means that we need to be careful when thinking about complex things, because we’re likely to overlook something.

But since Feser brings this up in the context of thinking about abstract things, I have to wonder. When he talks about the possibility of purely material minds, he sounds like someone who thinks that a DVD has to have little pictures on it; that if you put a CD close enough to your ear, you’ll hear the music on it. Maybe I’m wrong; but that’s the impression I get, especially after the bit in Chapter 4 where he seemed to think that thinking about triangles would have to involve part of your brain becoming triangular.

He goes on for a bit against David Hume and complaining about the “anti-Aristotelian ideological program” (p. 261) of modern science. Basically, he tells us, science cannot proceed without Aristotle, but scientists are fiercely opposed to him on ideological grounds. Probably because they just want to sin, or something. In fact,

Despite the undeniable advances in empirical knowledge made during the last 300 plus years, then, the work of the scientists who made those advances simply does not support the philosophical interpretation of those advances put forward by the proponents of the “Mechanical Philosophy” and the contemporary materialists or naturalists who are their intellectual heirs [p. 264]

See, scientists are smart people who have been very successful at figuring out how the universe operates, so successful that we now take things like nuclear weapons and GPS receivers for granted. But they’re not smart enough to figure out the implications of their work.

If you look around the Internet, you can find any number of religious figures or just plain cranks who are convinced that their holy book, prophet, or whoever predicted various facts long before scientists did. They usually do this by taking some vague or poetic passage in scripture, combining it with some scientific discovery, and interpreting the former to describe the latter. For example, this page on Islam and embryology explains that

“The three veils of darkness” [in the Quran] may refer to: (l) the anterior abdominal wall; (2) the uterine wall; and (3) the amniochorionic membrane

And this page explains that “[he that] stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain” in the Bible refers to cosmic expansion.

Likewise, in this chapter, Feser talks about scientists rediscovering the genius of Aristotle. But it’s also painfully obvious that the scientific revolution did not begin in earnest with Aquinas, but rather several centuries later. That, combined with the fact that science has been so wonderfully successful despite the fact that the average scientist probably couldn’t give a summary of Aristotle’s or Aquinas’s ideas strongly suggests that they’re simply irrelevant to science.

It’s the moon, stupid

By this point, Feser thinks that he’s established that the millennia-old ideas of Aristotle, refined by Aquinas’s medieval insights, are correct. He bemoans the fact that they’ve fallen into obscurity:

But if Aristotle has, by virtue of developments in modern philosophy and science, had his revenge on those who sought to overthrow him at the dawn of the modern period, why is this fact not more widely recognized? One reason is the prevailing general ignorance about what the Aristotelian and Scholastic traditions really believed, what the actual intellectual and historical circumstances were that led to their replacement by modern philosophy in its various guises, and what the true relationship is between the latter and modern science. [p. 266]

The blame for the “general ignorance” part seems to land squarely on Feser’s shoulders. It’s up to him and his colleagues to educate the rest of us. But honestly, maybe ignorance is his ally: Feser’s exposition of Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s ideas makes it clear that they’re largely based on ignorance and superstition, and can be safely relegated to History of Ideas class, and ignored in everyday life.

He closes by quoting the proverb, “When the finger points at the moon, the idiot looks at the finger” (p. 267) as an analogy to the way objects “point to” things beyond themselves, but “the secularist” doesn’t realize this. Fittingly, he closes on an insult: “It’s the moon, stupid.” (p. 267)

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Ubiquitous Teleology

Chapter 6: Irreducible teleology

We’re in the home stretch. In this penultimate section, Feser tries to make the case that teleology, or goal-directedness, permeates the world.

To start with, he tells us that human minds deal with final causes all the time: we conceive plans and execute them, and we build things for specific purposes. So yes, final causes in this sense do exist. But Feser has something much more extensive in mind; not just the existence of final causes, but their ubiquity.

Biological phenomena

[Biologists] speak, for example, of the function of the heart, of what kidneys are for, of how gazelles jump up and down in order to signal predators, and in general of the purpose, goal, or end of such-and-such an organ or piece of behavior. […] Darwin himself once said that it is “difficult for any one who tries to make out the use of a structure to avoid the word purpose.” [pp. 248–249]

Yes, the appearance of design in biology is compelling, so much so that Richard Dawkins wrote in The Blind Watchmaker that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose”. But of course that was Darwin’s great insight, that while we normally think of minds selecting one option or another, with living things, nature itself can, without thought, “choose” which beings reproduce and which ones don’t. That “natural selection” is not an oxymoron.

And yes, it’s difficult to look at nature without seeing design. It’s also difficult to look at clouds without seeing the shapes of people and animals.

Feser gives us a capsule version of evolution:

To say that the kidneys existing in such-and-such an organism have the “function” of purifying its blood amounts to something like this: Those ancestors of this organism who first developed kidneys (as a result of a random genetic mutation) tended to survive in greater numbers than those without kidneys, because their blood got purified; and this caused the gene for kidneys to get passed on to the organism in question and others like it. [p. 250]

But:

One rather absurd implication of this theory is that you can’t really know what the function of an organ is until you know something about its evolutionary history. [p. 251]

Well, no. We can talk of the function of an organ without knowing anything about its evolutionary history, by seeing what the organ does, and what it seems to be good at. For instance, before we start investigating how it is that such-and-such lizard came to be so good at digesting mulberries, it’s important to make sure that it is good at digesting mulberries. Fortunately, we can test this without knowing anything about its evolutionary history.

This is perhaps more obvious in genetics, where we can ask what a gene does, rather than what an organ does. To find out, geneticists typically try to knock the gene out, that is, to raise a generation of fruit flies or mice or zebrafish or what have you that don’t have the gene in question, then see what goes wrong. For instance, when the eyeless gene in fruit flies is damaged or missing, the resulting flies develop without eyes (hence the name).

It gets more complicated than this, of course. Scientists can try to activate the gene in different parts of the body or at different times, and see what happens. Or they can compare different alleles of the gene, or artificially-mutated versions, to see what happens (perhaps it doesn’t control eyes specifically, but all round body parts? Or perhaps it directs each segment to become whatever it’s “supposed” to become?), but this sort of experimentation and observation allow scientists to figure out what a gene (or an organ) does.

Now, this is a bit different from asking what a gene or organ is for. The latter phrasing implies that the gene or organ only does one thing, or has one primary function, and perhaps one or two secondary ones. And while this works in a lot of cases, there are a lot of cases where it doesn’t. For instance, I think it works to say that “the heart is for pumping blood”, because that’s something it does; it also does a good job of pumping blood; it’s the only organ I have to pump my blood, so I rely on my heart to do this; and I can’t do anything else with it. (One might, however, look at it from the point of view of a man-eating tiger, who doesn’t care what I plan to do with my heart. From its point of view, the purpose of my heart is to provide it with nourishment, same as my liver and lungs.)

But what about a bird’s wing? Is it for flight? (Not in ostriches, it isn’t.) Or perhaps it’s for displaying colorful plumage, the better to attract a mate. Or is it for protecting its eggs? Birds do all of these things with wings. And so, I suggest that it’s better to ask “what can you do with it?” rather than “what is it for?” (Besides, think how boring movies like Cast Away or The Martian would be if their protagonists only used things for their intended purpose.)

Now, it may be that when Feser says that a thing is “directed toward” something, he means much the same thing as I do when I ask what that thing is good for. If so, then I think the difference is that I try to allow for the possibility of a thing having multiple uses, while Feser prefers that things have one and only one use. For instance, we saw that he considers sex to have one main purpose — reproduction — and every other use (fun, bonding) is secondary to that.

Series: The Last Superstition