Monday, June 30, 2014

On Averroes

It is ironic that the man whom Europeans came to regard as one of the most influential Arab scientists and philosophers of the Middle Ages, was not exactly appreciated in his homeland.

Ibn Rushd (1126—1198), was a native of Cordoba, in Andalusian Spain, and his work covered a broad range of topics in medicine, science and philosophy. He would be known to Thomas Aquinas and other European scholars in the next century as Averroes. And Ibn Rushd was—thanks to Aquinas—destined to have a much greater impact on the European mind than he ever did on Islamic culture.

First, a little context.

[continue reading here….]

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Cloning for Stem Cells Advances

Generating robust stem cells via SCNT, also called therapeutic cloning, was not considered a practical option before the breakthroughs by Mitalipov, Egli et al. The approach was further tainted by the scandal surrounding Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk’s claims of success in cloning cell lines in 2005. A majority of scientists and the public also believe that reproductive cloning should be banned. (The U.S. still has no law that outlaws reproductive cloning.)


Friday, May 16, 2014

Taking Sony Playstation 3s to the Next Level

A few years back I wrote about astrophysicist Gaurav Khanna at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and his low-cost approach to harnessing computer power for modeling black holes.

Why spend a lot of money to rent time on a university supercomputer when you can devise your own by going to Best Buy?

The physicist has not been idle….

(continued at Forbes)

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Scholasticism II: What's in a PON?

Ed Feser wrote a thoughtful response to my earlier post on Scholasticism. And I'd like to expand on his comments, as my afterthoughts on Pieper's point were brief.

I’m a bit puzzled by John’s statement that “Scholasticism presupposes an Aristotelian philosophy of nature that is simply not adequate to support what modern science has uncovered about the natural order,” since I and other writers whose work John knows and respects (e.g. William Carroll) have argued that there is no conflict between an Aristotelian philosophy of nature and modern science. Indeed, we argue that the latter is best interpreted in light of the former. I’m pretty sure John is familiar with those arguments in at least a general way, so it would be interesting to know exactly what he thinks is wrong with them. Unfortunately, he not only doesn’t tell us, but doesn’t give the reader an indication that the arguments even exist! 

First, by "not adequate" I certainly do not mean wrong. Indeed, from our side of the discussion (metaphysics / science), I completely agree that there is no conflict between an Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy of nature (PON) and modern science. I can't think of any aspect of current science that can't be accommodated by A-T. And Ed's tireless efforts at making this clear (especially when it comes to evolution and the desperate inadequacies of intelligent design) should be on every philosophy of science course reading list.  

But simply accommodating modern science is not enough in my view. And that's what I was getting at. It's not adequate if a robust philosophy of nature is going to be of service to both sides of the metaphysics/science debate. 

But first, back to Ed's second point:

I’m also puzzled by the rhetorical question about how an Aristotelian philosophy of nature might be useful in apologetics, given that I never shut up about how crucial the theory of act and potency is to causal arguments for God’s existence, how crucial immanent teleology or final causality is to Aquinas’s Fifth Way, the role hylemorphism plays in the Third Way, etc.  (I’ve explained all this at length in Aquinas and in various academic articles, and of course here at the blog.)

Well, in fairness, here I was not necessarily thinking of the classical Aristotelian--PON. I said a broader philosophy of nature--one that certainly contains/includes the A-T PON, but is not limited to it. And in what ways could a modern PON be inspired by science now? 

What do I mean by that? 

As Stephen Barr pointed out in his essay, The Symbiosis of Science and Metaphysics, Aristotle did not come up with his metaphysics or his PON in isolation. These were informed by his empirical observations as a scientist.  

I think in one sense we have to do the same for a truly robust PON--one that could be of service to scientists --not just philosophers-- in interpreting the facts they uncover. And that means drawing upon the findings of modern science to inform it. 

Steve hits on this better than I can--and I'm going to quote extensively from his piece:

Beyond directly theological issues, does modern physics have anything to say to metaphysics, and therefore indirectly to theology? Some might argue not, on the grounds that metaphysics speaks about such general features of reality - of being as being - that it cannot be affected by discoveries of particular contingent facts about the world. And yet, Aristotelian metaphysics, which has such an important place in Catholic thought, was not conceived in isolation from scientific investigation. Aristotle was himself a great scientist and both his metaphysics and science make use of the same technical apparatus of form, matter, substance, accident, potency, act, and so on. Indeed, it was largely as a theory of nature that Aristotelianism first commended itself to medieval Christian thinkers.

He goes on:

It is a great problem that traditional Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics and modern science no longer speak the same language, as they did in the Middle Ages. Indeed, there are many terms and concepts in the language of each that are now almost untranslatable into the language of the other. Some argue that this is the fault of modern science, which restricted its attention to a limited range of questions having to do with the merely quantitative aspects of things and with efficient and material causes at the expense of formal and final causes. While there is some truth in this, it is only a part of the story. The language of Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics has changed very little since the advent of modern science and its vocabulary seems from a scientific perspective quite stilted and awkward for many purposes.

I think this is no small issue. If you polled most researchers, you'd find that formal and final causality mean little to them. But let's assume that's their fault for now and move on.

Physics has had enormous success in explaining why things happen as they do in the natural world, but its modes of explanation do not fit neatly into the four-fold classification of material, formal, efficient, and final causes. For example, when physicists explain the electrical conductivity of metals in terms of the "band structure" of the energy levels of the electrons in a crystal lattice of atoms, to which of the four causes does that correspond? As this example illustrates, explanation in modern physics is almost entirely in terms of mathematical structure and involves an enormously rich set of ideas about form. The fact that modern science is nonetheless typically accused by Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysicians of neglecting "formal cause" shows that they are working with a different notion of form than are contemporary physicists and mathematicians. In Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy, the ideas of formal causation and substantial form have a teleological thrust that is largely missing from the physicist's conception of form, which corresponds more to Lonergan's broader idea of form as "intelligible structure".

By 'typically accused' I'm guessing Steve is referring to scholars such as Etienne Gilson and perhaps even Stanley Jaki, but I'll leave that aside for the moment.  

Another example of a linguistic/conceptual difference between Aristotelian thought and modern science is that the former usually envisions the action of one thing upon another (for example fire heating iron), whereas in modern physics the physical world is explained in terms of mutual "interactions". A third example is that the notions of "species" in Aristotelian philosophy and modern biology are not compatible. Aristotelian species are what mathematicians call "equivalence classes", so that if A is of the same species as B, and B is of the same species as C, then A must be of the same species as C. However, it does not appear possible in biology to define species in a way that always satisfies this condition. (The existence of "ring species", such as the Larus gulls, illustrates the problem, as indeed does "speciation" in evolution, whereby all animals are of the same species as their parents and offspring, but not as their remote ancestors or descendents.)

In short, Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy has paid a heavy price for the two and a half centuries in which it largely ignored what was going on in the natural sciences. A sustained re-engagement with science would enrich its conceptual and linguistic resources. This re-engagement cannot simply be an attempt to translate statements of modern science into existing Aristotelian terms. That cannot be done in many cases. Rather, many more Aristotelian/ Thomistic metaphysicians than currently do must learn to listen to and understand science in its own native tongue. Modern physics has made discoveries (e.g. quantum mechanics) which undoubtedly have profound metaphysical implications, but what those implications are cannot be explored unless the physics is understood directly and not "in translation".
Now, for my part, none of this is necessarily a problem for the points Ed has made repeatedly before. But I would argue that a scholasticism that only reads science in translation is missing an opportunity to make itself richer and more compelling. 

Let me provide an example: A-T PON and the role of chance in evolution.

Now, no one knows better than Ed just how difficult it is to get fellow Christians (let alone materialists)  to appreciate the fact that chance processes in nature (hello, Darwin!) do not conflict with Divine Providence as understood in A-T philosophy. 

Yet--to what end? Ed has probably blogged until blue in the face (or his typing fingers) precisely why A-T can accommodate evolution, and with post after post on why the whole intelligent design enterprise is built on faulty assumptions from the A-T perspective. But even a sizable percentage of Catholics remain hostile to evolution precisely to the extent they fail to grasp the solid points of the A-T perspective. And as such, remain gullible targets for the ID charade.

But they also fail to grasp how scientists understand the role of random events in evolution.

That doesn't make Ed's posts a wasted effort. Nor does it demonstrate that a return to scholasticism is ruled out.

But I think it does show how difficult the task. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Return to Scholasticism?

There's a great scene in Elaine May's 1971 film, A New Leaf, where the main character, an aging WASP played by Walter Matthau, is being encouraged by his butler to marry rich in order to stave off bankruptcy.

He's frittered away his inheritance on expensive cars, the country club, and fine art. And he still doesn't seem to have a clue where he went wrong.

It's a classic scene, especially when you see the look on Matthau's face as he condescends to listen to his butler Harold's advice.

"Do it, sir. Take the plunge. Find a suitable woman," his butler tells him as he arranges his tie. "Don't give up the fight sir, not just for your sake, and this is difficult for me to say, sir, but for my sake as well. How many men today require the services of a gentleman's gentleman? How many men have your devotion to form? You've managed in your own way to keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born…"

I can't help thinking of this scene as I re-read Ed Feser's excellent talk, What We Owe the New Atheists, in which he argues that effective Christian apologetics requires a return to Scholasticism:
It requires that we recognize that where the apologetic task is concerned, metaphysics wears the trousers. Specifically, a defense of classical metaphysics — grounded in the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions and brought to perfection by the great Scholastics — is an unavoidable prolegomenon to the defense of the classical arguments for the existence of God and the natural law conception of morality. In no other way, I maintain, can modern secularism of the sort represented by the New Atheism be decisively rebutted.

Much as I admire Ed's point here, I think any attempt to return to Scholasticism is doomed. And Josef Pieper I think hits on one of the reasons in his own book, Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston, p. 38-39.

The extent to which rationality did indeed characterize the whole of scholasticism is plain to see throughout. What defined the great age of scholasticism? The fact that its leading minds, Thomas and Bonaventura, say, carried out that co-ordination between believing acceptance of revealed and traditional truth on the one hand and rational argumentation on the other hand with unfailing resoluteness-although they also knew just where to draw the line between the claims of reason and the claims of faith. Bonaventura, too, though by nature more inclined toward the affective and symbolic thinking of mysticism, speaks with great matter-of-factness (likewise in a tractate on the Mystery of the Trinity) of the necessity to grasp by reason, per rationem, what has been believed on authority, in so far as that is possible.

It is perfectly evident that such a task is one of  extraordinary difficulty, which from the start offers little hope of a permanent solutlon. Thomas and Bonaventura succeeded in containing the dangerous explosiveness of that conjunction of faith and reason in a contrapuntally structured unity. The very balance of tensions within that unity made for the "rich harvest" of that brief season which we call "high scholasticism." But we may say that the task put a tremendous strain upon the intellects of even such great men as these. They could scarcely have sustained the effort of achieving such a fortunate concord had they not been specially favored by historical circumstances. A new reality, the influx of new experiences, soon dissolved this concord again. Certainly the "synthesis" developed according to the principle set forth by Boethius was not abandoned flightily; it broke down under the impact of these experiences. (And, for good reasons, it has not been possible to reconstruct it down to the present day.) It is, moreover, understandable that for a moment the validity of the principle itself was thrown into question-and this doubt marked the end of the scholastic era and of the Middle Ages altogether. The reversal began when the premise that the "first scholastic" had set up for his program was challenged-both for purposes of argument and out of resignation. The man who might be called the "last scholastic" were he not rather to be counted as one of the first men of the coming era-William of Ockham-was destined to propose a different hypothesis: that belief is one thing and knowledge~ an altogether different matter; and that a marriage of the two is neither meaningfully possible nor even desirable.


My own sense is that Scholasticism can't work now because it presupposes an Aristotelian philosophy of nature that is simply not adequate to support what modern science has uncovered about the natural order. Which is not to say it is no longer valid, but rather that it is too limited. [No one says Newtonian physics is wrong, but it only addresses a limited aspect of a much wider, broader nature.]

Update: I should add, as I did in a comment on Facebook after excellent feedback from Scott Carson,  I think what fascinates me most is not the degree to which science has moved on--and that was a poor analogy on my part if that is how it came across. But rather, to the degree that Aristotle's philosophy of nature was itself inspired to some degree by his science (in particular his observations as a biologist), in what ways could a modern philosophy of nature be inspired by science now? And could it be useful in apologetics? 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Aczel vs. Krauss

My review of Amir D. Aczel's latest book, Why Science Does Not Disprove God, over at Forbes….

Friday, April 11, 2014

William Stoeger, SJ: 1943-2014

My short tribute to Fr. William Stoeger of the Vatican Observatory.

Friday, March 28, 2014

On RealClear Science's List of Great Priest-Scientists

As a result of the controversy surrounding the historical treatment of figures such as Giordano Bruno in Neil de Grasse Tyson's Cosmos reboot,  and the flurry of posts it's generated about the ‘war’ between religion and science, RealClearScience published a list of 9 Priests Who Were Great Scientists. The notion that science and religion are in permanent conflict is a myth, the RealClear editors note. "This superficial argument persists, no matter how much evidence accumulates against it." Indeed, they add:
The Catholic Church, of course, is the media's favorite whipping boy. However, the convenient narrative of a Church waging a two-millennia-long battle against science is drastically undermined by a long and inconvenient history of priests who were also productive scientists. Here are a few of them.

It’s a handy list--especially for history of science buffs. (Physicist Stephen Barr provides a more extensive list in his book, Modern Science and Ancient Faith.) But, I’m not sure it is going to convince skeptics that science and faith are so easily compatible.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Einstein Beat Hoyle

Almost 20 years before the late Fred Hoyle and his colleagues devised the Steady State Theory, it turns out that Albert Einstein toyed with a similar idea: that the universe was eternal, expanding outward with a consistent input of spontaneously generating matter.
But, of course, it's more complicated than that.

Continued here….

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Discussing the Nye/Ham Debate on San Francisco Talk Radio

Last night I discussed the 'great debate' between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Ken Ham, Founder and CEO of Answers in Genesis, on Gil Gross's afternoon radio program on San Francisco's KKSF, 910AM.

My segment starts about halfway in. It's always a bit jarring to hear your own voice, especially through a telephone. (Hopefully I did not sound too 'Boston'.)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Stephen Hawking: Time to Discard the Event Horizon

It seems like Stephen Hawking has become his own brand these days. For example, my daughter loves to play with the new iPad app: Stephen Hawking's Snapshots of the Universe. It's a neat tool for helping kids visualize relativity.

And while I don't think there's anything wrong with branding, it does tend to reinforce the suspicion that the renowned physicist is retired from real research.

But as Zeeya Merali writes in Nature this week, that's not the case.

Continue reading at Forbes...