Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dr. Thursday's Post

Unrolling: the Truth

We ended last week's leg of our journey with talk about a bridge... some very serious talk.

It is now time for us to screw up our courage to the sticking point, as we face the steep, narrow path ... the yawning chasm... the fearful abyss... the danger...

Yes, for the topic today is among the most debated, most boring, most important, most feared, most confusing, and most fight-provoking of topics...

But there is also a bridge. Click to read more here.

The topic is one word: EVOLUTION.

The issue is (according to SOME) exactly that war between faith and reason. Is there a God? Is there design? Is there science? What am I? What is Man? Is evolution a theory? What is a theory? And so on.

I find some of it very boring, because it is always the same tired words, never clear, never precise.. but more to the point, never quoting Chesterton, who has it phrased so well!

Father Stanley Jaki, the great historian of science, author of some 50 books, calls GKC the "Critic of Evolutionism" in his little study Chesterton A Seer of Science - one of its four short chapters examines why. But even more, this simple title clarifies the matter for us - and settles us boldly down the path.

The distinction, you see, is between Evolution (as a science) and EvolutionISM (a philosophy).

You see the chasm? The terror of the abyss which divides the various fields of human thought! And our path leads across it?

But I promised a bridge. Chesterton, like Aquinas, "has thrown out a bridge across the abyss of the first doubt, and found reality beyond and begun to build on it." [St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:543]

The abyss is easily seen, the fear is intense. Let us look at the bridge, then, and gain confidence.

Materialism and the view of everything as a personal illusion have some such effect; for if the mind is mechanical, thought cannot be very exciting, and if the cosmos is unreal, there is nothing to think about. But in these cases the effect is indirect and doubtful. In some cases it is direct and clear; notably in the case of what is generally called evolution.

Evolution is a good example of that modern intelligence which, if it destroys anything, destroys itself. Evolution is either an innocent scientific description of how certain earthly things came about; or, if it is anything more than this, it is an attack upon thought itself. If evolution destroys anything, it does not destroy religion but rationalism. If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything. This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about. You cannot think if you are not separate from the subject of thought. Descartes said, "I think; therefore I am." The philosophic evolutionist reverses and negatives the epigram. He says, "I am not; therefore I cannot think."

The scholastics, for whom argument meant Pursuit of Truth, used a tool called "distinguo" = "I Distinguish." In order to study something they considered it according to similarity, but even more, according to DIFFERENCE.

So does GKC.

Read those words again. IF IT IS ANYTHING MORE...

You see, there are TWO things here, hiding in that word "evolution" (which is just Latin for "unrolling"). Yes, once you've recovered from your acrophobic spasm, you can look and see there really are two chasms here.

(the word I wanted was "rapture of the heights" but perhaps better that I left it out.)

One is the error being made by the scientists. They think they can stop being philosophers - which means being WHOLE men - while they do their biology. No physicist ever says "Ah, what a pleasant day. I think I could go for a bit of measurement, maybe a length, a velocity, or something fun. Yes, I am going to do some physics now. So I shall by no means do any mathematics. That would be to abandon my field, and I must be a TRUE physicist."

What a loon.

Well, by no means can a biologist STOP DOING philosophy while he is doing his biology. The error is quite widespread; GKC wrote about this for most of the last chapter. But some 50 years before GKC wrote Orthodoxy Cardinal Newman was saying the same thing:
The human mind cannot keep from speculating and systematizing; and if [some field] is not allowed to occupy its own territory, adjacent sciences, nay, sciences which are quite foreign to [that field], will take possession of it. And this occupation is proved to be a usurpation by this circumstance, that these foreign sciences will assume certain principles as true, and act upon them, which they neither have authority to lay down themselves, nor appeal to any other higher science to lay down for them.
[Newman, The Idea of a University, Discourse IV]
Ah. See those strong cables, those mighty foundations? We are reassured. The chasm does not bother us at all.

Then there is that second chasm - the one where the philosophers play a game, trying to pretend that there cannot be a science at all. Newman's warning applies just as well here, but I shall give another example for you.

Some centuries ago, people believed that the "heavens" (that is, the stuff you see above you when you are outdoors) were "divine" - or at least somehow "holy". It was not possible to "explain" them by means of the tools of earth - that is, terrestrial mechanics. (I hear some people yelling "Galileo" and "Newton" - but that does not explain anything at all. We're not talking about science yet.) You see, even to this very day, in 2008 there are people who REFUSE to believe certain truths about reality, because their religion, er, I ought to say, their PHILOSOPHY forbids them to believe it.

And since the forbidding is from a Philosophy (you can read "religion" here if you like), the freeing or the granting of access, must also occur within that same realm, or it cannot "take hold".

That is what happened back in the 13th century, when the truth we proclaim every Sunday: "Credo... in unum Dominum Jesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum" - I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ only-begotten Son of God - was brought to bear on the matter. The heavens could not be divine, because Jesus was the Only-begotten - and not the heavens, as the Greeks taught. The really serious work anticipated Newton by several hundred years:
The Aristotelian dichotomy between superlunary and sublunary matter was dealt a decisive blow, and the unitary approach of classical physics to earthly and heavenly bodies was foreshadowed, when Buridan, inspired by his faith, discussed the substance of stars in a manner which patently deprived them of the divine and imperishable characteristics which Aristotle attributed to them.
[Jaki, Science and Creation chapter 10]
Indeed! If you want to explain the birth of modern science, you must look to a CREED which freed us from a wrongful belief. ("Reason itself is a matter of faith" - we heard that last week, didn't we?)

The heavens are NOT divine. They may use their own laws, or they may use "terrestrial" laws - but at least for CHRISTIAN philosophers, there is NOTHING which prevents "science" from exploring them with even earthly tools.

It's even funnier to think, as one glances through the history of science, how scientists found something strange in the sun which had NEVER been found on earth.... WAS THIS A COUNTER-EXAMPLE? Oh, no. It was first found in the sun, but you can buy it in the store... they called it after the Greek word for "sun" but now you can get helium in a balloon.

Then there's that strange weird blue color, again something apparently impossible on earth - scientists used the word "forbidden" - and called the substance "nebulium" - but it proved to be nothing more than oxygen, in an extremely ionised state, possible only in VERY empty space.

One more example, to bring us back to earth. The scientists of maybe two centuries ago thought that the physical substances which exist in LIVING things were somehow FORMALLY different from those in NON-living things. They used the word "organic" to mean those which came from life (from organisms), and "inorganic" for rocks, rivers, and the rest of things.

Until 1829 when a German chemist named Wöhler produced something called "urea" (yes, it sounds like "urine" where it is found) - but he did it in the lab, in glassware, from non-living (inorganic) compounds. (It caused quite a bit of war; see Jaki's The Relevance of Physics chapter 11 for the hilarious whining about this!)

That brought about (or at least began, or provided the possibility of beginning) the junction of two disciplines, which henceforth had a new hallway joining them: biology and chemistry. So now we have biochemistry, molecular biology, and whole departments of sub-disciplines.

Now, let us turn to that other chasm. And here I shall for once speak about my own experience. The SAME thing is happening (has been happening) between biology and computing. I do NOT mean that computers are helping to do searches in DNA sequences. I mean that the question of DESIGN, invoked or opposed, belongs at least in part to computing, where the idea of a thing-which-specifies-the-building-of-a-thing is a way of life. (We computer people call them "compilers"; without them we are cooks without kitchens, utensils, and ingredients.)

The ribosome is the machine of the living cell which makes proteins. But its code exists in the DNA. A ribosome is able to build the parts for new ribosomes, because it is given (1) the recipe or blueprints and (2) the raw materials. A compiler can produce another compiler, provided... Ah - the bridge! (I was going to say "the Surprise"... hee hee!)

But in just about any of the daily whine about "evolution" you will NOT hear the real matters being explored - you will only hear the boring stuff as the children fight.

Enter GKC. And, like Aquinas, with a blow on the table, he divided the science from the philosophy. Read it again. Yes - "stingless for the most orthodox" - isn't that a GREAT phrase? Learn it; learn these paragraphs. GKC gives us the bridge by which we cross those chasms and safely arrive on the other side.

The whiners, scared, silly, little ones that they are, are left behind, and we advance.

--Dr. Thursday

P.S. Yes, evolution is a science inasmuch as it measures something real: the relation between a living being and its offspring. That is all. The obedient Mendel, the monk, ought to be its patron saint - not Darwin the cagey secretive God-basher. Oh, yes; he had another, non-scientific, purpose, which he kept hidden; see e.g. Jaki's The Purpose of It All for more. And talk about purpose? Can there be such a thing? Will your purpose now be to post a comment arguing against it? How odd. I could quote GKC: "No sceptics work sceptically; no fatalists work fatalistically; all without exception work on the principle that it is possible to assume what it is not possible to believe." (CW2:542) but here's an even more curious version: “Those who devote their lives to the purpose of proving that there is no purpose, constitute an interesting subject for study.” [A. N. Whitehead, The Function of Reason, 1929]

One more thing. If you'd like to know more about the relation between compilers and ribosomes, please ask. I do hope to write about it someday. It will be lots of fun, and very Chestertonian.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Thursday, I appreciate your post, but I am sorry to hear you find evolution boring, because it is one of the most discussed topics in the world today, in academia, in newspapers and in magazines. Creationism, anti-evolutionism or anti-Darwinism is no longer a domain of those pesky fundamentalists and evolution deniers otherwise known as "creationists", but it is becoming the hottest Catholic issue as well.

    I am also glad to hear that you are on the side of Chesterton and other "good guys", (if I read correctly what you have written), like cardinals Cardinal Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, and cardinal Avery Dulles, who believe in the importance of Design in philosophy and science, like in this First Things article in which the cardinal praises the importance of Design:

    "Notwithstanding these advantages, Darwinism has not entirely triumphed, even in the scientific field. An important school of scientists supports a theory known as Intelligent Design. ..."

    and his reply to letters:

    You may find these very recent discussions quite interesting:


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