March 14, 2010


SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is turning fifty soon.. Actually, as strange scientific enterprises go, SETI has been very honest: It has a clear criteria for how it detects "intelligence", and has been pretty honest about its failings. The whole thing is largely run as a side-show now, and that's a good thing, but it was not too long ago that some very serious voices in public science policy were advancing it as Very Important. I think the last time I saw anyone advance it as Very Important, it was Wired magazine and a number of internet outlets around the beginnings of SETI@home.

I recently tried to re-watch Cosmos on Netflix Watch Instantly. After two-and-one-half episodes, I gave up. It wasn't the outdated information, the low production values, or even Carl Sagan's strange accent ("youmans"): It was the absolutely boring and droning ideology. There were times that Sagan could be downright inspiring––his Pale Blue Dot is something very like a secular eschatological text–but under that there was always a thick layer of Gibbonesque squalor. Mankind lived in total ignorance and darkest filth until the Early Modern Era, and since then, everything has been Enlightenment (except for those nasty nuclear weapons that may wipe out our species). This often involved misunderstanding the motivations of historical figures, or even outright fabrications of the sort good scholars could have simply corrected at the time of the original airing. I'm comparing this with my recent viewing of Terry Jones's Medieval Lives where, despite his obvious personal apathy to religion, Jones is very forward and honest about the work of medieval scholars, down to even suggesting that the Renaissance could have been a backwards-step in scientific awareness (certainly the Enlightenment's a priori sciences were, largely).

At his best, Sagan provided an emotional and even religious context for secular humanism. It did not matter to him that his religion was really only a religion of the priests (for even most of its advocates never take part in its higher ceremonies other than to derisively contrast them to traditional ones on the internet), or that the ideology even blinded him to facts–in history and in modern society–upon which his whole world-view was built. He was an evangelist, and one of rare power, given a fully-funded PBS series upon which to make his case. There was something very impressive and numinous about Cosmos as a boy; compared to the Orthodox faith, now, it falls a little flat.

• • •

Part of the worldview so enthusiastically advanced by Sagan was the cult of the "empirical" test. When "empiricism" becomes a cult, you know because empirical tests are designed which provide results overdetermined by the rational model they were inspired by, but are hailed as "proving the model", rather than simply demonstrating its rigor and applicability. To the point.

There is nothing in this experiment that "proves" Heidegger's model; it does provide more anecdotes about how the brain may interact with tools that become "part" of us. What is telling is that even the comments (which provide some good alternatives or other issues) do not point out that the noise was read in the way it was largely because it was expected to occur. There has been enough said about the issues with reduction in neuroscience to where I do not feel I have to repeat all the arguments; this is just a very particular example of means and method that should be a little more clear to most of us than the general cases.

• • •

I find myself incredibly generous, compared to many of my friends, in the labels I'm willing to use to describe many of the intellectual frameworks I use. In biology (and related disciplines), I'm a Darwinian. I say this with a long list of caveats involving some essential philosophical differences with most Darwinian logics, even down to the ones I most use. But, I am still a Darwinian: When confronted with the history of life on this planet, and when doing the work that is science within that history, I inevitably turn to the concepts and tools of evolutionary biology, whatever its weaknesses in confronting the human spirit.

Similarly, when I think about economics, I do so with a lot of information, models and structure inherited from Austrian (and to a lesser extent, Chicago school, economics). Unlike in the prior example, I almost never call myself an Austrian (for one, as my training is largely personal, I feel less of a reason to align myself with a school), but I will happily admit the influence that Mises and Rothbard have had on my thinking. This does not mean that I do not find the policy ideas and concept of the human person and culture of nearly all Austrians (including the two names before) to be hopelessly naïve at times, and evil at others. I take this as a weakness for which I am not going to throw out many of the very useful conceptual tools of the school; I read Austrianism as being wise when it is wise in spite of its classical liberalism, largely because it seems that many of its core insights undermine its liberalism, but like many ideological disciplines, it cannot part with them. (This often happens to historians of the French Revolution as well, I should note.) Similarly, while Marxism is nearly completely wrong on economics, and massively, truly evil in its execution, I would not throw out its sharp critiques of modern society, either (I just think that, similarly, they exist in tension with the whole rest of the ideological package.)

This all said: Most people are not very careful about how they use and appropriate their frameworks when working in science or social science, or whatever. (Note: Despite all the talk, I'm not a true instrumentalist, though I think the work that is science requires methodological instrumentalism due to the poverty of the human mind.) Enter Stephen Jay Gould:

"Professional training in philosophy does provide a set of tools, modes and approaches, not to mention a feeling for common dangers and fallacies, that few scientists (or few "smart fokls" of an untrained persuasion) are likely to possess by the simple good fortune of superior raw brainpower."

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory

This is part of a passage in which Gould largely supports the lament of philosophers of science regarding the fact that scientists themselves are unwilling to listen to them. (Or simply ridicule them: See Richard Dawkins.) While I think that Gould is a little too hopeful for the intellectual honesty of professional philosophers, there is some truth to what he says. And, furthermore, the sorts of intellectual tools provided by philosophy to be able to step back from the work that is science and assess it from the point of view of truth, are not removed from the playing field for "normal", "untrained" smart persons: They just require the willingness to think hard about assumptions, logic and (alas!) metaphysics, combined with a willingness to read carefully and discourse civilly.

In the ideology of Sagan, no matter how urbane he could seem at times, there was ultimately no room for that sort of humility and non-mathematical grunt work. We are grasping the very stuff of stars, Sir, what have you to tell us?

• • •

At the core of many issues between Christian theology and science (and modern academic theology and the theology of the Church) is the fundamental view of rest, of contemplation.

"For the contemplative cleaves to truths rationally and with knowledge, not with effort and struggle, and apart from these he refuses to see anything else because of the pleasure that he has in them."

–St. Maximus the Confessor [trans. Louth, emphasis mine]

Part of the cult of progress is the idealization of intellectual struggle; there is no progress without struggle, struggle is eternal, the darkness always present. Even talk of "Grand Unified Theories" in no way gives up the concept of human struggle, and to the extent that it does, even many of its proponents lament the idea of such a theory being discovered (see: Hawking). Even advocates of Christian philosophy sometimes will find themselves in the language of struggle: There can be no rest, for rest is the end (as in death, not tελος) of the philosophical life.

For us, a contemplation of the truths of the Triune God is the true wellspring of philosophy, the only place where the restless mind can rest in order to reach back out to the world with true reason, true rationality. As rest in anything else would only cement us in error, no wonder the rest of the world embraces restlessness, an eternal end of principle. (Can you not admit the possibility of being wrong?) It would be wise if it didn't forget the necessity of rest, the need to turn away from change to begin to understand it.

He refuses to see anything else because of the pleasure he has in them.

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