Friday, July 29, 2005

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You know, it strikes me that we talk about this or that event being "probable" or "likely" or the reverse, without necessarily considering what that means. I guess the best way to illustrate this is to ask, "what's the probability of a coin landing heads-up?" Naturally this is a trick question and the answer is, "it depends on how likely you are to flip a coin" or something of that sort - the point being that probability can only exist within a system of certain parameters. If you have a coin, and it's being flipped, and it's not weighted funnily or anything of that sort, then (and only then) can you have the probability. When we say that some event is "probable" as if in the abstract, we are using a sort of figure of speech, often because many events cannot easily be narrowed down to any specific "system" besides "the world", whose laws we tend to grasp vaguely when at all.

This is all reasonable, but the problem comes when we start to imagine, through a sleight of hand, that some event really is "probable in the abstract" - as if there is some free-floating thing called "probability", which can inhere in this or that thing. When we say that something is "likely" or "unlikely", it is reasonable to ask, "under what circumstances is this thing happening or not happening? What laws govern such circumstances, and how much do I understand of them, either explicitly or through an intuition born of experience?" One effect of this notion of "free-floating probability" is that, since it proffers the illusion of determining (at least in some degree) an event's likelihood by examining the event alone, it gives us a vastly-inflated notion of our own ability to determine "likelihood". To be sure, some events will not be likely (or unlikely) in any realistic set of circumstances, but in difficult cases it's a good idea to be sure about such things. For when we admit probability to stem from the event in question considered in its context, we often have to admit that we don't know a whole lot about the context, and this may make us a little slower to declare this or that event "unlikely", "implausible" or the reverse.

Well, anyway that's the sort of musing that occurs to me when I'm not getting enough sleep. Have a good weekend - I hope next week I will arrive in a slightly better-rested condition than this.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

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Native english-speakers sometimes like to brag about the enormous vocabulary of our language, in which we have ten words for everything, but I sometimes wonder if the great size of our lexicon can actually reduce our powers of expression. I suppose much the same problem may occur in many other languages - but any case, one of the benefits of learning New Testament Greek (even badly) is that you realize how few the words of Scripture really are. For instance "kyrios" may be translated as "Lord", "master" and maybe a few other things; likewise "dikaios" and its derivatives might be "righteous" or "just" or "upright" or "virtuous" or any number of things. And words that seem utterly different from one another when translated, may be clearly derived from the same origin in the original.

I think that this is particularly important in Scripture, especially in a day so filled with woeful translations, because every verse is an inexhaustible font of meaning, and if (to imagine an instance that probably never actually occurs, but there are many like it) someone should translate "kyrios" as "mayor" because the text is referring to something like a mayor, many of these meanings will be obscured, leaving us with only the most straightforward of them. This is why a language with fewer words (in which, say, the word "kyrios" is used very often) can have advantages over a language with many, where "kyrios", which suggests many meanings, can become something so banal as "governor" or "sir", which suggest only one meaning - the very precision of english can be a weakness.

Of course, it helps a great deal to use a good translation. I dismiss pedantic claims that this or that team of biblical scholars has improved on the naive work of our ignorant forbears - they have done nothing of the kind. For as important as good scholarship, is a sound mind - not that ignorant men (like me, for instance) can translate Scripture no matter how sensible they are, but as far as translating a text, learning will reach a point of diminishing returns. And sometimes, in some scholars, learning may even prove a hindrance to translation, in that they will have some theory (perhaps even correct) that this phrase would generally have been taken to mean such-and-such, and thinking that we ourselves are too stupid to figure out the phrase if they merely translate the words, they give us the "such-and-such" that they take it to have meant, using perhaps some common English idiom that has nothing to do with the Greek. To some degree this is necessary, but I have seen many translations where it is taken much too far. This, and also the generally low-minded character of modern translations that I suppose everyone has noticed, even the translators who more or less try and make a selling-point of it, are ruinous of the subtler meanings of Scripture.

If only it were easier to get the Douay-Rheims in print!

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

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You know, it's no secret that I tend to blog at a time when sensible people sleep, but I like to think that as a general rule, I can at least keep a clear head on my shoulders despite the onslaughts of fatigue. Yet, as I consider the unavoidable fact that my "Tuesday" post was written on a fine but distinctly Monday evening, I have to think that the old engine was not exactly firing all cylinders at that time.

Anyway, I hope tomorrow I can have a more substantial post, maybe something about Rasselas, which is certainly worth a bit of attention. And maybe someday I can figure out the answer to a knotty question: why has anyone ever heard of Immanuel Kant?

Don't get me wrong - the fact that a philosopher's conclusions are more or less bunk does not make his fame incomprehensible. It's not just that Kant is wrong. Presumably Hume was more poisonous than Kant, and the little snippets I've read of him were generally wrong about something, but he doesn't strike me as a stupid man. But the snippets I have gathered of Kant have made me wonder, without hyperbole, as to whether Kant was really very bright.

For instance, I had known for some time that he dismissed, along with the "ontological argument" for the existence of God, the entire idea of a necessary being. "Existence is not a property" he said magisterially, and that was apparently that, or something like that. But today I learned something really flabbergasting: he rejected the "cosmological argument" (that is, arguments for the necessity of a First Mover or First Cause) because...they aim at proving the necessity of God's existence, and because (as he thought) there was no necessary being, such arguments must be invalid.

Now consider what this means: the cosmological proofs are supposedly false because they are conclusive. For if they only proved that God most probably exists, then Kant's objection to necessary being would be forceless here. Or if they proved that God must exist, but only because of some contingent quality of Creation, rather than that He was proven by the very nature of Creation, then likewise the proofs would become unobjectionable on such grounds.

His error was, I suppose, in conflating two sorts of necessity: the necessity of God's existence that inheres in the very nature of God (which necessity Kant called impossible), and the necessity of God's existence as shown creatures - and that some creature can show the necessity of something's existence is obvious; that any creature can show the necessity of its Creator's existence is hardly surprising, and does not involve the (perfectly valid, but denied-by-Kant) idea of necessary being as the property of a nature. Which is a subtle enough error I suppose (though still a black mark in a purported "great philosopher" who treats of a very important subject), but even a subtle error is inexcusable when it leads to a patently absurd conclusion through a very simple chain of reasoning, for then it should be immediately manifest that some error was made, thus inviting a closer search.

And surely the idea that cosmological arguments are invalid for the very reason of their conclusiveness is such an absurdity; the idea that if an argument were just a little bit worse, it would be better, should not pass the scrutiny of any true philosopher. To be sure, there are arguments that "prove too much", but only by leading to an absurd conclusion - not by leading to a reasonable conclusion too effectively! Even if there is no logical contradiction, the oddity gives any sensible man pause.

So I have to wonder, in the face of all the respect he is accorded, if he was even a particularly intelligent man - and if not, why on earth do we still hear about him?

Monday, July 25, 2005

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Belatedly it occurs to me that the compiler of the page linked below, included a number of obvious derivatives of the Biblical story, so that some of the apparent "cognate" narratives may simply be folk corruptions from Genesis itself, that have had more time to alter in form through successive retellings and spurious additions. Scripture is known just about everywhere, and in many of those places it's been there for some time. The page is interesting, still, but it will take some more work (tomorrow, after necessary sleep...) to see how much these are all "separate witnesses".
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Following a link by a commentator (Marion) on the Disputations blog, I found this page, the content of which was almost entirely new to me. Quick summary:

Most of the legends are clearly just silly tall-tales. But consider this "Altaic" (central Asian) story:

"Tengys (Sea) was once lord over the earth. Nama, a good man, lived during his rule with three sons, Sozun-uul, Sar-uul, and Balyks. √úlgen commanded Nama to build an ark (kerep), but Nama's sight was failing, so he left the building to his sons. The ark was built on a mountain...Nama entered the ark with his family and the various animals and birds which had been driven there by the rising waters...On successive days, Nama released a raven, a crow, and a rook, none of which returned. On the fourth day, he sent out a dove, which returned with a birch twig...."

But just go the page and do a ctrl-f for "rainbow". If you have more time on your hands, try and note the names like Noj, Nuu, and other fellows commanded to build a large boat so as to survive the flood. Nuu is from an Hawaiian story; there's a "Nanaboujou" from an Ottowan something-or-other. And note the frequency, on both hemispheres, of the basic idea "God saw that the world was wicked, and destroyed it in a flood."

I'm sorry, I guess my old skepticism hasn't left me yet; I simply can't convince myself that this is a coincidence...leaf through them yourselves; it's easy enough to tell at a glance which ones you can ignore, and which ones fit remarkably well into the overall patter.

But of course, we moderns know better than to put stock in ancient folk stories.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

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Thursday, Part II

On Belloc: his historical method is often derided for its vague and unscientific character. But it is interesting, anyway, to apply that test so favored in science nowadays, of evaluating predictions. On the one hand, what sort of predictions were the respectable, scientific historians making in the late 1920's? It is hard to believe that they predicted anything other than puerile nonsense, but perhaps I am wrong. On the other hand, read the "New Arrivals" section in "Survivals and New Arrivals"; there is not a thing in it, that looks silly in light of actual events.

Reading Belloc does not tell you much about the matter of history, that is true enough - but as regards the form of history, he is suberb. I would say, in general, that he is of little use as an instructor, but he helps one to organize what one has already learned, and to see it in a new light. He also, of course, has his literary delights - under the heading of "materialism" in his "Survivals" section is a queer comic gem that is pure Belloc. Or so it strikes me; your results may vary.
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On the subject of evolution (more briefly than on the first occasion, I assure you), let us turn to a more reliable source than myself: Pope Pius XII's encyclical Humani Generis. Here are the most pertinent paragraphs, given in installements:

"35. It remains for Us now to speak about those questions which, although they pertain to the positive sciences, are nevertheless more or less connected with the truths of the Christian faith. In fact, not a few insistently demand that the Catholic religion take these sciences into account as much as possible. This certainly would be praiseworthy in the case of clearly proved facts; but caution must be used when there is rather question of hypotheses, having some sort of scientific foundation, in which the doctrine contained in Sacred Scripture or in Tradition is involved. If such conjectural opinions are directly or indirectly opposed to the doctrine revealed by God, then the demand that they be recognized can in no way be admitted.

36. For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter - for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith.[11] Some however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question."

First consider that from what Pope Pius XII knew at the time, there could not have been a clear contradiction between the origin of the body from pre-existing and living matter, and the Faith. For if it were clear, he would have seen it; if he would have seen it, who would be so eccentric as to suggest that, seeing the contradiction, he would yet permit discussion on the matter without even hinting that this origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter, were in fact false? His injunction that we must give due consideration to opinions for and against, and not as shoving through some conclusion that was sufficiently proven, must not be taken lightly today, even if we think that this origin is better-shown today. Yet that he saw no contradiction between "human evolution" (in general, as opposed to certain specific varieties of this theory) and the Faith, remains clear.

"37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is no no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.[12]"

Here, then, he condemns that theory of multiple origins for mankind. Note how he relates its condemnation completely to the doctrine of Original Sin, not to the inerrancy of Scripture (except insofar as Scripture teaches Original Sin, as indeed it does). I do not say that polygenism cannot be condemned from Scripture on any other grounds than that it contradicts the teaching of Original Sin; only that Pius XII did not choose any of these grounds.

"38. Just as in the biological and anthropological sciences, so also in the historical sciences there are those who boldly transgress the limits and safeguards established by the Church. In a particular way must be deplored a certain too free interpretation of the historical books of the Old Testament. Those who favor this system, in order to defend their cause, wrongly refer to the Letter which was sent not long ago to the Archbishop of Paris by the Pontifical Commission on Biblical Studies.[13] This letter, in fact, clearly points out that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters, (the Letter points out), in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people. If, however, the ancient sacred writers have taken anything from popular narrations (and this may be conceded), it must never be forgotten that they did so with the help of divine inspiration, through which they were rendered immune from any error in selecting and evaluating those documents.

39. Therefore, whatever of the popular narrations have been inserted into the Sacred Scriptures must in no way be considered on a par with myths or other such things, which are more the product of an extravagant imagination than of that striving for truth and simplicity which in the Sacred Books, also of the Old Testament, is so apparent that our ancient sacred writers must be admitted to be clearly superior to the ancient profane writers."

It is clear that we may not wave away the historical content of Genesis with a vague muttering about "metaphor". But consider: "the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes...."

Since 1950 have exegetes - true scholars, not laymen such as ourselves, and certainly not Protestants - determined that Genesis is in contradiction to evolution? Of course they have not; exegesis obviously does not proceed with the unanticipated, revolutionary discoveries of the natural sciences, but even though what was once obscure does become clearer with a greater accumulation of study, it is obvious that since 1950, respectable exegesis did not drift in the least towards a rejection of evolution. Respectable exegetes are perhaps much harder to come by as compared with 1950 (I wouldn't really know), and as the time has been short in any case, the accumulation of exegetical expertise since Humani Generis is perhaps minimal if extant at all. Yet this only solidifies the certainty that nothing contradictory to evolution has evolved, as it were, from Catholic exegesis.

So then: both evolution and "the origin of Man's body from pre-existent and living matter" were acceptable in the day of Pius XII. Since then, cell biology has posed enormous problems for Darwinian selection in demonstrating a horrific complexity in the cell, but at the same time reinforced the evidence for common descent of living creatures (which includes the origin of Man's body from etc.) since we all have DNA, and all share many apparent accidents of structure both in this and other features of the cell, which (if indeed they are not functionally necessary) could not be explained by similar function producing similar design. Michael Behe, perhaps Darwinism's most prominent opponent, is a molecular biologist who would know about such discoveries quite well, and he accepts the common descent of organisms, which includes the origin of man's body from etc.

So as regards common descent, leaving aside Darwinian selection in particular, the case in the physical sciences is at the very worst no weaker, and seemingly much stronger, than in 1950. The state of respectable theology on this matter, has not changed at all to my limited knowledge; the great multiplication of heterodox theology has probably somewhat hampered, in more than one way, the development of authentic theology since then.

Why, then, is common descent unacceptable today while acceptable (if unproven) in 1950? I think it clear that it is perfectly acceptable, though it is unwise to proclaim the thing as certain, given that it turns on historical events of which we have no direct evidence. Perhaps even with the growth of knowledge, it could never become more than a very plausible theory, but in any case I do not find convincing, claims that it is inimical to the Faith.

That said, if someone considers evolution false, I have no strong reason to controvert with him - but to say that it is contrary to Faith is much more than a judgment of falsity; it is a weighty claim that no one may throw around lightly, and as I consider it to rest on no substantial grounds, I think it should be opposed. For we should not impose upon each other any needless burden in the Faith, and surely to claim that a popular theory with many persuasive arguments in its favor, is unChristian and must be rejected, when in fact it is not unChristian and may be held, is just such a needless burden as the Apostles rejected (see the Book of Acts). That some, in tying a rejection of Darwinism to the holding of religion, have thus rejected religion upon being convinced of Darwinism, has been an undisputable and even undisputably frequent phenomenon in the Protestant, anti-evolutionary world. Do we wish for the same to happen in the Church?

Lastly, let us return to the antiquity of the world. The most unmetaphorical, literalistic reading of Genesis Chapter 1, would tell us that the world is about 6000 years old, proceeding from the geneologies in later chapters. Is this theory even to be considered defensible, much less contrary to the Faith? Note that in speaking of the historical interpretation of Genesis, and on the origin of the human race (matters that would surely relate, naturally, to the question of the world's antiquity), he speaks not a word on the matter. Neither has any other Pope. The evidence for the world's antiquity is much more multifaceted, much more certain, much less controversial than the evidence for evolution. It occasioned far less controversy at its introduction, it was accepted by many of those 19th century biologists who rejected Darwin, it is proven by everything from the distance of the visible stars and galaxies, to the features of our landscape, to say nothing of the fossil record, which also proves this much less ambiguously than it does evolution. Yet as the reductio ad absurdum of Protestant Bible-Christian exegesis has shown, this well-proved theory too is at variance with a "plain-meaning" reading of Genesis. How, then, can such an exegetical method be maintained, even apart from the objection, that were Scripture so easy to interpret, scholarly exegesis would not be necessary?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

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I had called Belloc a breath of fresh air, but I had, then, yet to come across this remarkable book. For all the provocative and lofty character of his writings in general, I have never considered any of his books as "essential reading". But this work is simply unique and almost eerie. In his other works, especially "The Great Heresies", I had already noticed his prophetic prediction, at exactly the moment when it would have seemed most ridiculous, that Islam would be a threat to our civilization in the coming years. Here, however, he hits one home run after another. That this work was written in the late 1920's, seems almost incredible to me.

In passing, it is interesting to note his remarks on evolution. He considered evolution by "mechanistic natural selection" to be "dead as a doornail", but in the same paragraph, considered that the bestial origin of Man's body was probable - and simply took as entirely and satisfactorily proven, the great antiquity of the world. He discusses the fundamentalist notion that this is all contradictory to Genesis, and dismisses it. Likewise he confirmed what I had suspected - that in Catholic countries, the controversy over evolution in England in the 19th century was regarded as so much of a tempest in a teapot. If any Catholic would deny the fact, that whatever one says about natural selection, the great age of the earth is indisputable and the common descent of creatures probable: what further proof is needed, that this denial is entirely a creature of fundamentalist Protestantism, and has nothing to do with the Catholic Church? Is Belloc, too, to be accused of denying a teaching of the Faith? And did more than a century of Catholics, from about 1800 onward, somehow fail to see that this theory contradicted the Faith (unless Belloc misrepresented this? I doubt that, since everyone else I've heard is in agreement with the fact that 19th-century Catholics everywhere were undisturbed by Lamarck, Darwin et alia) while a ragtag band of tub-thumping "Bible Christian" Protestants in England and America struck at the very heart of the matter with the fine intellectual and spiritual discernment for which they were so well known, and perceived its incompatibility with the Christian religion that they themselves only held in a most perverted manner?

Belloc said that he considered Lamarck's explanation the true one; oddly enough, I remember reading in my childhood an old article by the aforementioned John W. Campbell, written perhaps a decade or two later, in which he recounted a conversation between two microbiologists where one said, "everyone knows that Darwin and Larmarck were both half-right." I dismissed this as quack scientific speculation from a well-known eccentric (though why his own oddity should affect this reported conversation unless he were simply a liar, is difficult to fathom), but on the other hand, try googling "epigenetic inheritance" (unless you know something about it already). Is Lamarckianism always on the verge of a revival that never happens?

In any case, while lacking the multi-faceted richness of Newman's "Idea of a University", this is another book that talks about really important issues of our day, analysing them with intelligence and depth. What on earth has happened to men like this? I admit, they were thin on the ground even in earlier years.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

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As a little one, I was (like many little ones) quite the science geek. After losing interest in a somewhat unusual manner, I find myself rekindling this love of childhood, but (I should hope) having left behind that emotional and thoughtless approach to the sciences which bright children necessarily take, and which does so much damage, I suspect, to the formation of many intelligent minds in the modern era. So far I have not dug very deeply at all, and I admit that my poor native ability and dislike for mathematics will not make things easy.

In any case, just making the vaguest overview of things, I am finding the odd fact that when one traces the origins of modern sciences, one invariably comes up against a few 19th century Germans or (more rarely) Englishmen or Frenchmen who more or less invented the foundational theories of this science. And in perusing some of Einstein's popular writings, it is clear that in every way he was the product of the 19th century German Academy, surely among its greatest. In saying "the 19th century" of course I am referring to a general period, not precisely bounded between 1800 and 1900.

I can't help wondering - could we really produce these sorts of minds today? To what extent are the sciences progressing towards perfection at an ever-growing pace, and to what extent do we lean upon a golden age in the natural sciences (an age less golden, true, in philosophy and certainly in religion, and dominant but perhaps not unmixedly beneficial in its influence on historiography) that is now gone?

In any case, I came across an essay by an author much more interesting than myself, who does little either by his imposing example, or by his own opinions, to contradict the idea of a general intellectual degeneration in our culture in the past century: Hilaire Belloc's essay on G.K. Chesterton after his death. Belloc, like the Ven. Newman, is a breath of fresh air.

Friday, July 15, 2005

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Well. A post like Wednesday's demands some recovery time - ironically, I sat down at around 7pm thinking I would hammer out a quick post, relax the rest of the evening and turn in early. When 11pm rolled around and I was still typing with no end in sight, I realized something had gone wrong...I think it was around 1 in the morning when I finished it.

A 1000-word blog post is one thing, but 6000 words in one sitting is really pushing it...don't think I'll do that again anytime soon.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

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[note: I began this as a brief post. It is easily the longest I have ever written - but is in my opinion the best of a questionable lot, on the other hand.]

The fray between proponents of evolution and opponents of the theory is one in which I am not at all qualified to jump; I barely passed evolution in college. I think I passed it...well, anyway, there are at least a few points on which I may have something to say.

First of all, though opposition to Darwinism in one form or another is not a monopoly of American protestants, they have, as it were, a very large share of the market. And whatever the merits of Darwin's case, the protestant objections to evolution do not spring, in my opinion, from a reasonable intellectual position - and it is much clearer, I think, that many conservative American Catholics have acquired this same mindset, to their detriment. Before the following, I wish to make clear that I do not consider all anti-evolutionists to be described by the following remarks; I have said that I am too ignorant to engage the actual theory on its merits, and I mean it. I am describing something peculiar to American protestantism, which has yet made inroads among American Catholics.

There is something which I have encountered in several places, but which has manifested itself to me most clearly in protestant attacks on Darwinism, and on the Catholic Church; the latter, as with all things injurious to the Faith, we are required to avoid, but one does come across these things willy-nilly anyhow - in my case, largely in reading various Catholic bloggers who undertake to refute protestant calumnies and sophistries. I have only recently realized the identity of this thing, and how it should be described: it is a sort of American, protestant "parallel Academy." To put it more crudely, they have "their own little world" of intellectual activity, a kind of Potemkin village - something Americans are good at making.

In the Faith, we have a clear distinction between the natural and the supernatural virtues; the virtues pertaining to learning, both in aiding research and study, and those which are honed by the same, are of course natural. The same applies to, for instance, the arts. Thus, while cognizant of certain dangers involved in certain cases, Catholics will often learn from unbelievers, enjoy the music of unbelievers, etc. The respect which many Catholics have long held for Aristotle, is a clear demonstration of this.

Furthermore, because we do not abhor human nature, but only consider it both flawed, and even if perfected, still insufficient for salvation - we therefore recognize ourselves, generally speaking, as part of the same society as the unbelievers who live among us. For human nature does not only define the individual, but the society as well, so in possessing the same human nature as all others, then just as all others participate in the society into which they are born and raised, so do we. Even those ways in which we must separate ourselves from society, are often but rejections of deviant, unnatural behaviour in our society, so that it is we, and not they, who act then according to human nature. Our supernatural life imposes still further separations upon us, and is indeed the reason that we observe the confines of nature so carefully, but we do not consider that our membership in a supernatural community of souls, removes us from our natural communities; it only means that these are no longer our "primary citizenship", hence we are said to be "not of them".

For protestants, on the other hand, things are not so clear. They are taught little or nothing of the natural and supernatural orders, and consider grace as replacing nature, rather than adding to nature and also perfecting it. And so they do not consider the domination of our Academy, or our arts, or anything else in our society, by unbelievers, as a flaw to be remedied; instead they establish their own Academy, their own Art, and so forth. When the Church has found it useful to provide some Catholic alternative to some popular trend injurious to the Faith, she takes what is good in that injurious thing, removes what is bad, and promulgates it among the Faithful - hence when Averroesian Aristotleanism was sowing unbelief, Providence gave us St. Thomas Aquinas - or so the story is related to me. But the protestant approach, is to quite honestly and straightforwardly offer a counterfeit - something that bears sufficient resemblance (they hope or believe) to the popular thing, to fool people into accepting it as a substitute. The difference in the two approaches may seem a subtlety, yet in truth the difference between them is not a subtlety, as they are almost opposite in strategy: we copy the substance, while removing the harmful accidents - and if the substance itself of the thing be harmful, we do not sugarcoat the thing but simply reject it completely. They, instead, copy the accidents, sometimes including the harmful ones (as with their "Christian rock", which often has all the sensuality of ordinary rock music, without the virtue of an occasional good tune), and do not investigate the substance.

Thus I think they have created, rather quietly, their own parallel Academy, with its own scholarly debates, its own intellectual snobbery, its own fads and fashionable ideas, its own ear-mangling lingo. They have everything that an Academy needs, except that they are not an Academy; for all that the real Academy in America is filled with fatuity, cant and debased intellectual and moral standards (nor can these be separated, as for instance generous concessions towards one's disputant both in private thought and public argument, are both a matter of common courtesy and an absolute necessity for cultivation of the intellect), it is still the real thing. And when the Darwinists complain that ID theory "is not science" they have, for all the flaws and fallacies of their arguments on this score (and leaving aside the question of their own theory's correctness) a point against the American protestant Potemkin village of the intellect, not only with regard to this village's opposition to evolution, but against the fakery that undergirds the entire enterprise.

Thus the Potemkin Academy treats evolution not as a theory to be studied, understood, critiqued if necessary, opposed if necessary, and accepted where possible. Rather they see that this theory has, for whatever reason, sowed doubt in their ranks - and therefore it is a snare of the devil, to be fought with their own competing theory. I do not say that they speak of it either so clearly or so bombastically; I am far from thinking that all conservative American protestants that oppose evolution are "fanatics" who hear of Darwinism and fly into a rage. But they engage this theory with a polemical mentality, as if making a case against a foe, an attitude such as befits a lawyer but not an intellectual. This polemicism, with which the anti-Catholic sorts also engage the Faith, stains their criticisms of "Neo-Darwinism" through and through, for all the intelligence and learning that their best partisans display - and for all that their opponents in the "establishment" generally have not the wit to equal them in controversy.

On the one hand we must be leery of a professionalism, according to which we bestow excessive respect on the experts in a given field, who are often quite mistaken in their own areas of supposed expertise, and sometimes so clearly mistaken that intelligent laymen (and even stupid laymen) will be right where they are wrong. Yet a mind sufficiently educated as to see some element of likeness and connection in all sciences, will not be inclined to this superstitious awe of scholars in this or that particular field, knowing them to have the same fallible judgment as those in fields with which they are more familiar - while at the same time respecting their expertise. For if professionalism is dangerous, dangerous as well is the idea that a few quickly-perused arguments, a battery of pre-digested facts from some book or website, and a sharp mind are sufficient to equal the fruit of long and difficult study. Even if the website is right and the disciplined student is wrong, the reader of the former should realize the shakiness of his ground. For this very reason, I decline to render a verdict on evolution despite knowing more on the subject than some, I daresay, who have leapt into the fray on either side - I leave such pronouncements to those who didn't leave their College of Biological Sciences halfway through its undergrad program, thank you very much.

In any case, this Potemkin Academy has, like many elements of American protestantism both liberal and conservative, made inroads upon American Catholics, and while the unmeasured scorn that Darwinists tend to pour on their enemies is quite disgusting, I think that a certain rebuke to these Faithful is not untoward, inasmuch as we "should not give unbelievers cause to laugh at us," as St. Thomas said in condemning arguments which claimed to prove by reason alone that the world was not eternal. Unlike a fondness for American protestant "Christian rock", which is merely incomprehensible, any Catholic alliance with their "Christian Academy" risks bringing disrepute to the Faith.

But as regards evolution itself, granting my incompetence in evaluating its truth or falsity, what can I say of it? Firstly, I cannot see the grounds on which one would consider it injurious to the Faith, although I can see how certain popular trends in that theory have indeed proved thus. Secondly, it seems to me that the difficulties with this theory are enourmous, yet not necessarily disqualifying or even prejudicial to its acceptance - yet be that as it may, these problems should certainly be taught to students and the Darwinists have no good argument against this. Thirdly, it seems to me that the Darwinists have some grounds in their vague and facially-absurd claim that "Intelligent Design is not science", but the situation is a bit complex. Let us deal with the first heading first.

The claims that it is injurious to the Faith, rest (it seems to me) on three different propositions: that evolution contradicts the book of Genesis and therefore the inerrancy of Scripture, that evolution directly contradicts certain doctrines of the Faith concerning the first Man and Woman, and that evolution indirectly contradicts doctrines concerning Adam and his descendants by promoting nominalism.

Now the first proposition is mainly protestant in character, and not even universal among protestants; it is more particularly a "creationist" claim as it is called, in that even in positing a great age for the earth, Darwin is thus said to contradict Scripture. Catholics, of course, are not taught to believe in a young earth and generally have little to do with such narrow-minded interpretations of Scripture. That we believe the literal sense of Scripture to be true, does not mean we are what is now called "literalistic"; as the good old Catholic Encyclopedia has it: "The literal sense of Sacred Scripture is the truth really, actually, and immediately intended by its author." If that truth is expressed in metaphor, then the metaphorical meaning, and not what is popularly called the "literal meaning", is the true "literal sense" (the whole article is, of course, worth reading for a much deeper discussion of this).

The second proposition had, at an earlier time, some validity, as it was once widely believed that Man evolved in several places at once; this is, as I believe it was Pius XII said, contrary to the Faith; the start of Original Sin with one man, from whom every other man was descended, is not a metaphor, whatever other metaphorical, allegorical or "non-literal" elements are within that holy Book of Genesis. Stephen Jay Gould complained that such an instance of "religion" dismissing "science" was inconsistent with the separation between theology and the physical sciences. But this is false, as this separation is conditioned on the content of Revelation, which is clearly not separate from the science of history. Revelation, revealed as it was to save sinners, tells us (as I think Galileo really did say) "not how the heavens go, but how to go to heaven". It does not tell us about the theory of Relativity - or about heliocentrism. Or, I believe, about biological evolution as a general theory. But our salvation is accomplished through, among other things, divine Faith in certain historical facts - and the dawn of Man (and the Fall of Man) is an historical fact; a scientific theory that Man arose in twelve places at once, is also an historical theory and may (and does) contradict Revealed truth. They cannot make historical assertions, then exempt themselves from criticism by calling it biology. Fortunately that theory of multiple origins has fallen into the dustbin so far as I know - from what I've heard, genetics has shown us to be a highly-inbred species, indicating a very tight "bottleneck" (or several such) where the total population of our species was quite small. As to whether genetics has truly proven, as some have said, that we all descend in every line from one woman, I do not know.

That it promotes nominalism is a subtler claim, one that underlied Chesterton's objections to the theory. Indeed, from all that I have heard, Darwinism clearly did this in its original stages, and perhaps does now as well - but to what extent this is a necessary accompaniment of evolution as a theory, is another matter. Let us first consider the idea of form which lies in contradiction to nominalism.

The basic idea, of course, is that various creatures have distinct forms, which are not merely convenient representations of the mind, but really present in the things that hold these forms, though they (I think, along with smarter people like St. Thomas) have no independent existence as per Plato's "Ideas". Still, that only tells us something about the forms, not what they are.

I am not an expert on such things, but I think that a form is defined by a specific act, so that creatures whose matter assumes two different forms, must thereby perform different acts in some way - and these to be understood as habitual acts, not some acts that they happen to perform at the moment, i.e. eating (habitual) as opposed to scratching its nose (accidental).

Aristotle thus (I am told - I have yet to read a word of his extant writings on the physical sciences) defined species according to function, and has since incurred much opprobrium for that. He "set back biology by centuries" and so forth. I suspect that this is not really just; one error with which he is charged is "doing science by deduction and not observation". Yet Aristotle, highly as he valued deduction (for it is highly valuable) was clearly quite taken with observation; I have a hard time reconciling the careful observer of drama who wrote the Poetics, with the "pure reasoner" in his "ivory tower" who supposedly strangled scientific observation in its cradle. And as for classifying species by function and not physical resemblance - this is admittedly incomplete, but hardly a bad principle in modern taxonomy (and since one function of a species is reproduction, and since like produces like, it is hardly contrary to Aristotle's thinking that only interfertile animals can belong to the same species).

After all, his idea of classification by function is used today. We call it a "biological niche"; it is not a taxonomic means of classification, since genetic relation is preferred (and with reason, since the organism's form is determined by its genome; therefore genetic similarity is the best measure of likeness in form). But I suppose it rarely arises, that two different animals occupy (of necessity due to their natures, and not by accident of circumstance) very different biological niches, yet look very similar and can even interbreed; the similarity of genotype required for reproduction, is generally accompanied by considerable similarity of phenotype, and thus "niche" or, alternatively, form.

Of course, there are certainly those who, nominalists to the core, object to the idea of biological niche on principle, conjuring up their usual petty objections from this or that strange and ambiguous case, or simply by declaring it inconsistent with nominalism, which they identify with correct thought. But niche is quite real; a system of various functions arises quite naturally among organisms - and the idea is quite Aristotelean. Of course one must not imagine the ecosystem as a machine that requires some exact list of parts, with every niche perfectly filled; imperfections are to be expected.

Still this order exists, and from what I can tell, it was not really present in early Darwinian thought. "Ecosystem" was not a word when Darwin wrote his books, and the idea of species evolving from something that performed this particular function in a system, to something that performed that function in a system, was not (I think) how evolution was thought to work. It was more the idea of natural selection as keeping the biological world in a constant state of flux - endlessly progressing to nowhere in particular, rather than shifting things, at times, from stable state to stable state. This was much in keeping with the philosophies popular at the time.

It is not in keeping, I think, with more modern ideas of evolution, which have had to bow to the unfortunate (for some) fact that a "species" is not simply an arbitrarily-defined group of ever-progressing organisms described in their particular evolutionary state at some particular time, but a stable form; this is (apparently) attested by the fossil record. The philosophy in which evolution is encapsulated is still nominalist, but I think this is simply because the people teaching it are nominalists, not because their theory demands it.

Nor can it be urged that in allowing for a transition from form to form, the concept of form is abolished - for the possibility of intermediary forms is self-evident given that different forms are composed of the same sort of matter; evolution simply poses no new challenge to Aristotlean metaphysics, or any other that incorporates a clear distinction between forms. Evolution is quite comprehensible in conventional metaphysics; anything that performs some function A, can usually be "jury-rigged" to perform some function B for which it is not specifically suited, but only suited in a general way. If this thing is an organism, it will very likely adapt so as to better perform that function B. Thus the human hand is not specifically suited to piano-playing, but only generally so (inasmuch as it is suited to manipulating objects of a certain size, and piano keys are such objects), so that at first it performs the task poorly, but later adapts. Why could not a species, thrust by circumstance into the performance of some function it is not very good at, have a natural mechanism for adapting over time? And if what I have heard about genetic researches, that there are various highly-complex mechanisms governing the origin of mutations (as opposed to the old idea of DNA polymerase driving evolution through typos), is true, then "evolution" would be literally a mechanism for adaptation, driven by an act of the organism (though not a specifically directed act, unless we want to get Lamarckian). And for any adaptations that do not succeed but precede a change in function, it is again nothing strange that some accidentally-acquired feature, could turn out to have a function (which it probably again performs poorly at first, at which point adaptation again takes place).

But then there are problems arising with evolution, nominalism and the origin of Man in particular. What are they?

If Man evolved over time, from some apelike creature, then first of all some might say that with no clear distinction between himself and an ape, he is not really a separate form from an ape. The usual reconciliation between separation of forms and transition between those forms, does not really work here because Man's immortal soul cannot arise incrementally from something that has no immortal soul; a soul can be mortal or immortal, but cannot stand halfway across the gulf between them, as the gulf is not a finite thing.

Yet the immortality of the soul is neither physical, nor does it arise from anything physical. Some might object that because the possession of a human soul affect our physical actions, it must be accompanied by some physical (and thus evolutionary) change, but this assumes that the soul cannot affect matter, but only parallel the operations of matter, so that physical change must follow physical cause alone. Many modern thinkers, who have finally come to terms with the obvious fact that the soul (which they call "consciousness", an inadequate conception) is a real and non-material thing, still wish to maintain that the soul is yet completely in the power of matter, created by matter and powerless to alter it. Yet this is contrary to reason, for the very notion of causality implies that any creature which changes another creature, is itself changed in so doing; therefore if material motions have effects on the soul (as assuredly they do) then the moving material - presumably in the brain - must be itself affected by its relationship to the soul. This is not merely some "primitive intuition", but is confirmed by all observation and all reasoning - for never was observed the creature that affected something else, without itself changing as a result. If the earth pulls at me, I pull (however slightly) at the earth; the sun is not altered by the fact that it shines in my eyes, but the electromagnetic waves it emits (which are what act directly upon me) are very much altered, and the sun is in turn altered by the act of emitting those waves. Thus with all creatures - all that ever is or was, but the Unmoved Mover (I never til now understood that part of St. Thomas's fivefold proof, though I think he called it "the simplest". But it seems rather obvious now that any object that induces change in another, not only changes in so doing, but it would not have begun inducing that change unless something else had, in turn, changed it - and the infinite series of movers fails for the same reason that extending a moving staff [as per the Doctor's example] to infinity, saying that this part was moved by the part behind it, etc. and ad infinitum, would not explain its motion, until you posit a hand somewhere; hence the necessity of an Unmoved Mover. Anyway he puts it much better. That's his "simplest" proof - St. Thomas unnerves me sometimes).

So matter affects the soul, but the soul affects matter. Therefore, by an immaterial change in the immaterial soul, a creature's actions may be affected. So you could have some apelike creature, whose offspring were genetically very similar, whose behaviour were different in kind because God provided it with an immortal soul.

But of course, it is scarcely impossible that Man were created literally from the dust, and that his origin is an exception to a general rule of evolution (if there be such a rule). Yet this has no bearing on evolution as a general theory.

If one supposed that the first man were indeed born bodily of an ape, one would naturally ask, "was Adam given a soul at birth, or did he receive it later?" I am not sure. We are, in any case, dealing with very specific incidents in human history, where general rules are of little use, and obviously there is no archaeological evidence; we have only the teachings of the Faith, that there was a first man, and that he and his wife were in a state of blessedness, and that they were tempted and fell.

But supposing that he and Eve were born of an ape, it is not necessary to suppose that they lived as the apes did; that the Garden of Eden could have been a physical garden, as well as an allegory of Man's initial state of blessedness, is possible. That Adam and Eve really saw angels of the Lord, and were tempted perhaps by some really visible manifestation of the Evil One, to eat some real fruit, is also perfectly possible - though none of this is, as far as I can tell, a doctrine of the Faith. My point is that if Man's physical origin were through nature, this would hardly dictate that everything in Adam's life must have been perfectly "naturalistic" in appearance. For as I will argue later, the reason for believing in such a natural physical origin, is not some naturalistic prejudice according to which the miraculous must be minimized or eliminated (that this mentality does indeed, including among the Faithful, provide much impetus for Darwinian theory is probably true, and regrettable - thus perhaps a passage in Maritain, I think [maybe Gilson; I get them mixed up], where he said something that implied, as I understood it, that Man's first parent was some brutish apelike creature living in brutish, apelike circumstances, as if this were an evident fact. None of this disproves the theory of evolution, anymore than a fondness of heretics for Aristotle in the early days of the Church, proved the Stagirite foolish).

So it seems to me that Darwinian theory does not contradict the Faith. As for the difficulties involved in the theory, my treatment must be very scant, given my own lack of knowledge.

But it is clear that the only observed, proven instances of evolutionary change are of a very minor sort. And as I said earlier, I think, on this blog, the fact that species are generally genetically stable for a very long time, raises even greater difficulties with the idea of (say) a human being evolving from a fish. Yes, the hypothetical fish dates from 500 million BC or something like that, which is quite a long time, but the actual time it spends in a state of significant genetic flux, would presumably be a miniscule fraction of that - for most of those 500 million years, its descendants would be members of some genetically-stable species. The exact time is impossible to estimate, yet to suppose, say, just a million years spent in genetic flux, is hardly ridiculous. Which is not really much time to get from lungfish to Adam. Of course there are various theories about interspecies, non-reproductive "jumps" of various genes, so that if some species is not evolving at a given moment, nevertheless the genes of its descendants might be "in the oven" in some other, rapidly-evolving critter. But the idea of whole organs or enzymatic pathways leaping from species to species strikes me as exceedingly implausible, and the possibilities for extending the "time-spent-evolving" with this sort of clever bookkeeping strike me as limited - still, we've long sinced passed my competence zone so I'll quit speculating on that.

My point is that there are all sorts of functional leaps for which the mechanism is completely unknown and difficult to imagine. I know that Michael Behe, one of the leaders of the "ID Theory" movement, specializes in enzymatic pathways (I think he is a molecular biologist) whose construction strikes him as particularly unlikely. "Irreducible complexity" is a term he uses often; that there are things whose complexity could not really be reduced, without depriving it of any conceivable function, I will admit. It is even possible that certain things might somehow, someday, be demonstrated to possess this irreducible complexity. But I think it highly unlikely that such irreducible complexity could be demonstrated for enzymatic pathways with the resources at our disposal. Yes, certain pathways would fail when deprived of any of their enzymes - but that there could not be some other, similar, simpler pathway that performs some other function, is difficult to demonstrate. How on earth does one demonstrate such a thing?

Still, the difficulties of Darwinism are immense. In fact, one would likely conclude that the evolution of such varieties of organism from a common ancestor were impossible, except that there is good reason to believe that it happened.

To clarify the assertion that evolution has never been seen in action on a large scale: a standard Darwinian counter to this, is that of course it's been seen on a large scale, but since the fossil record is so scanty, the "creationists" who "demand" transitional forms will eventually demand more than the record can provide. But when we consider species as generally stable forms, which periodically enter a state of much-heightened genetic flux (perhaps in some small, genetically-isolated population; I think this is called "allopatric speciation"), it is clear that evolution is really only happening during those periods of speciation or flux. Therefore, when considered as evidence for evolution, examples of creatures in the process of speciation are categorically different from (and more valuable than) examples of separate and stable which are morphologically similar, such that one appears to have descended from the other. The evidentiary value of the latter is not zero, and if the fossil record lacks the most compelling class of evidence for evolution, this is not tantamount to disproof; Newman, in his Anglican-period "Essay on Miracles" pointed out that the value of the given evidence for an event, is not degraded by the mere potentiality for better evidence; the evidence must be weighed on its own merits, not by its inferiority to the "evidence that might have been". Still, the Darwinists are either dishonest or dim-witted in failing to recognize the difference in kind between the "transitional forms" they proffer (which are mostly, if not all, stable species to the best of our knowledge, if my recollection is correct), and an actual organism demonstrably in the process of speciation.

So, is there a case for evolution, and can such an ignorant layman as myself grasp it?

I believe that the answer is yes on both counts, for the following reason. It can be traced, actually, from something Michael Behe himself said: that ID really does mean just "Intelligent Design", and that while he himself believed this design to be divine, he could not disprove the assertion of one who said that the design was by aliens or something. Now, I don't believe in aliens. If I did, I would find ID arguments more persuasive than in fact I do. As it is, the only intelligence that I believe capable of designing a new species, is the source of all intelligence, God. Now let us consider this.

The Darwinists would tell us that "bringing in God" is "not science". Unless they are simply unbelievers who are not in the mood for serious argument, and wish only to brush aside the ID theorists with whatever blunt instrument lies to hand, I find this stupid to the point of lunacy. Science means knowledge. Knowledge pertains to, among other things, events. If God created some particular species, that is an event. Ergo, it is a proper object of science. The question, is simply whether God created species particularly, or whether He created the world such that new species would naturally arise from old species. If He created them particularly and separately, this is no doubt disappointing to the Darwinists, but the nature of the universe is not actually tailored to fit the desires of scientists.

For they have actually urged, as if this were a serious objection to "ID theory", that this theory does not allow for any research, or for much education. Really! And the "non-Atlantis" theory, according to which there is no lost Atlantis, does not allow for much research into the history of Atlantis! This is not considered a viable objection to the "non-Atlantis" theory. How perverse can men be? If a thing did not happen, it is scarcely pertinent to say that it affords a more interesting subject for study than what actually happened. I suspect that such "arguments" as this have made more converts to the ID-theory side than anything Behe or Dr. Phillip Johnson has written.

Nor is it sensible to say that scientists are "not permitted" to bring in a supernatural explanation. Certainly if they do so merely because they can think of no natural explanation, this is inappropriate (why so, we shall consider momentarily). And it seems to me, indeed, in this case, that this is the precise grounds on which they are being asked to "bring in" the supernatural. If, however, it were demonstrated that any natural explanation were implausible (not even necessarily impossible), then there is nothing unreasonable in inclining instead towards supernatural explanation. Again, we have the obscurantism of treating history as if it were biology; I suppose that even some of these scientists who "aren't permitted" to bring in supernatural explanations, would do so if they were personally offered some miraculous event before their very eyes, for which no natural explanation, not even hallucination, would avail. So, then, must evidence for the supernatural be right before their eyes to be valid? Presumably not - but why, then, must it even be in recent history? Why not distant history? That ID Theory has proven any even to be supernatural, I do not admit - but that it is categorically impossible to rule out a natural origin for a far-distant historical event, I do not admit either. The Darwinists only embarrass themselves and win converts for the other side, by claiming such categorical impossibility.

But as I have hinted earlier, if we assume that anti-evolutionists have not really proven a directly supernatural origin for speciation, we should be strongly inclined to suppose that there is a natural explanation, even if this is beset with difficulties. Why is this so, given that (as I said above in re: Garden of Eden) we should not make skepticism a guiding principle?

Regarding miracles, my ignorance and incompetence exceeds even the bounty I possess with regard to evolution. Yet it seems to me that if we are ignorant of the exact character of some act, so that we cannot see directly whether it is natural or supernatural, we must examine its possible causes (if any) and its effects. Now there is a natural cause for speciation, which is the "emptiness" of some biological niche. Thus it is hypothesized that when the dinosaurs vanished, the niches occupied by these large organisms were no longer "full", so that the previously-small mammals evolved to fill similar roles to their saurian predecessors. Thus, once plants had colonized the land, it is thought that some semi-amphibious lungfish-like creature could therefore benefit from being able to live on land and eat all the free food, so it gradually became a complete land-lubber. Likewise the effect of speciation (a new species) is not supernatural in character as is, for instance, the effect of the Sacraments; rather it is natural. So with a natural cause and a wholly natural effect, we should be inclined to anticipate a natural act, or so I should think.

Furthermore, as this act seems to have been repeated countless times, it has further the character of a natural event that proceeds from the nature of the earth - whereas the origin of life, for instance, is a special event, happening only once as far as we can tell, so that there is little reason to think it a natural consequence of circumstance.

Lastly, any claim that because we are believers, we must be "ID theorists" by definition, requires this qualification: we must believe in an intelligent design to the universe as a whole, but the operation of chance within that universe, is in no way contradictory to the doctrine of Divine Providence (see this excellent post). And there is no reason to declare that speciation may not result from the operation of chance. Thus, those who say "Darwinism, hypothesizing randomness in speciation as it does, is inherently atheistic" are simply wrong. True, if they hypothesize randomness in some ultimate sense, that is atheistic, but evolution could easily be random in the sense that this particular set of taxonomic groups, as compared to all the other sets that could have arisen, need not be so special among the myriad possibilities as to leap out at us as "evidence of design". Just as Providence need not give a "designed" appearance to a rock-face in order to be at work on all things, including that rock, thus it need not give a "designed" appearance to creatures; the only indisputable design is that in the very fabric of the universe - the natural law.

I would be interested, however, to hear any arguments to the contrary of all this - I know in particular that Bettina is more familiar with biology than myself, and has (as I recall) spoken unfavorably of Darwinian theory. In any case, I should probably get to bed now.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

<< # St. Blog's Parish ? >>


Hm, my previous link to the EU Constitution didn't take. Well, apparently there is, as per the BBC article, a (mushily-defined) veto power for the Member States as regards "common policies" of the EU - but as far as subsidarity is concerned, I think the BBC was flat-out wrong; whoever wrote that just guessed (or was misled) as to the meaning of "principle of subsidiarity". I certainly do not think it means "the EU is subsidiary to the Member States". Anyway, in the chapter on "Common foreign and security policy", we find this spiffy little passage (the Council = the heads of the Member States):

"1. The European decisions referred to in this Chapter shall be adopted by the Council acting unanimously.

When abstaining in a vote, any member of the Council may qualify its abstention by making a formal declaration. In that case, it shall not be obliged to apply the European decision, but shall accept that the latter commits the Union. In a spirit of mutual solidarity, the Member State concerned shall refrain from any action likely to conflict with or impede Union action based on that decision and the other Member States shall respect its position. If the members of the Council qualifying their abstention in this way represent at least one third of the Member States comprising at least one third of the population of the Union, the decision shall not be adopted.

2. By way of derogation from paragraph 1, the Council shall act by a qualified majority:

(a) when adopting European decisions defining a Union action or position on the basis of a European decision of the European Council relating to the Union's strategic interests and objectives, as referred to in Article III-293(1);

(b) when adopting a European decision defining a Union action or position, on a proposal which the Union Minister for Foreign Affairs has presented following a specific request to him or her from the European Council, made on its own initiative or that of the Minister;

(c) when adopting a European decision implementing a European decision defining a Union action or position;

(d) when adopting a European decision concerning the appointment of a special representative in accordance with Article III-302.

If a member of the Council declares that, for vital and stated reasons of national policy, it intends to oppose the adoption of a European decision to be adopted by a qualified majority, a vote shall not be taken. The Union Minister for Foreign Affairs will, in close consultation with the Member State involved, search for a solution acceptable to it. If he or she does not succeed, the Council may, acting by a qualified majority, request that the matter be referred to the European Council for a European decision by unanimity.

3. In accordance with Article I-40(7) the European Council may unanimously adopt a European decision stipulating that the Council shall act by a qualified majority in cases other than those referred to in paragraph 2 of this Article.

4. Paragraphs 2 and 3 shall not apply to decisions having military or defence implications."

Okay, I missed the meaning of all this the first time through, so I hope you won't be insulted if I give you a little "Cliff's Notes" summary: in deciding on a "common foreign and security policy" that does not have "military or defence implications", the EU must be unanimous in its voting except under circumstances a, b, c, and d, where only a "qualified majority" is needed (at least 15 Member States or 55% of them, whichever is higher, and provided that they together comprise at least 65% of Europe's population. This sort of thing is enough to give a man second thoughts about the democratic system....)

Now, one problem with a written Constitution that has haunted us Americans, is that large sections of it will later be shoved aside (for good reasons and bad) as "irrelavent". In examining the document before age has atrophied its less-exercised paragraphs, one must thrust aside any idea about what the document was "clearly intended" to mean, and consider what could be done with it by a sufficiently dishonest and sophistical person, by taking provisions out of context and twisting their meaning, or finding a pretext for effectively making certain provisions unusable. In this case, it is clear that the limited case of paragraph 2 could possible become the "typical" case, with the general requirement of unanimity in paragraph 1 becoming unimportant.

Less obvious, is the consideration that this sentence-fragment could someday (supposing that this horrifying Constitution ever becomes law) be important: "If a member of the Council declares that, for vital and stated reasons of national policy, it intends to oppose the adoption of a European decision to be adopted by a qualified majority...." Who is to determine what are "vital...reasons of national policy"? The obvious answer is that the objecting nation determines this, but what if, instead, some Union body were to determine this instead, and ignore objections that it deems "non-vital"?

I am not saying that this particular consideration will arise. I am saying that things of this sort will happen - that is, absurd interpretations of the law which, if predicted, would likely bring scorn on anyone so silly as to worry that this interpretation could ever be advanced...until it is advanced. Allow these interpretations to gain the field, and no provisions for individual national autonomy will avail - particularly since, even if the Union overstepped its Constitutional boundaries, it might not matter. Violate the First Amendment of our own Constitution, and someone is likely to notice; say what you like about this Amendment, but it's pretty brief and catchy, and Americans have developed a fondness for it. But suppose you violate some paragraph of the EU Constitution saying that "decisions regarding common social policy as defined in Part III shall be reached by a Class 12 Majority as defined by the Taylor Series given in Part IV, Title III, Article 4, Paragraph 2." It's just not going to provoke rioting in the streets.

And beyond that, the bloated Constitution of the EU might be, in practical terms, much more easy to modify if adopted than our own fairly-constant text. Having so much garbage in it already, no one will worry about throwing in a little more - so really, this whole interpretive dance may be unnecessary as the EU attempts to extend its powers.

Anyway, this fun stuff aside, there are two important objections to the EU in general and its over-reaching Constitution in particular: that it will end up being a United States of Europe, and that whatever the merits of the idea, the people actually running the thing are horribly corrupt and arrogant. In other words, "bad idea" or "bad execution".

I've heard the former objection poo-pooed as follows: "oh, that's just ignorant paranoia; Europeans are too diverse a group with too many deep-seated divisions and too little grounds for unity to become one big country like the US; the very idea is absurd." Certainly it seems a bit odd that a bunch of two-bit bureaucrats will succeed where Napoleon and Hitler failed, and conquer Europe. But then, they've made pretty good strides that way already. Even just a common currency is nothing to sneeze at - it's more than Napoleon managed. And as for the "too diverse" business, the Roman Empire was not exactly one big gathering of like-minded individuals; it still lasted for quite a while. Certainly the cases are very different, but the arguments I've heard for the impossibility of a "USE" don't convince me. Maybe I just don't know enough about Europe.

What I can certainly say after reading something of the EU Constitution, is that if a "USE" is possible, and if the EU is not checked in its path by something more substantial than a few failed referenda, then it is going to happen. Extending the EU grip as far as is practical, is the clear goal of this hideous document. And in America, we know how easily and naturally a "Union" of "States" can become one big honking State, granting this Union certain minimal powers at the beginning (taxation and a military are the most important I suppose. Currently the EU subsists on Member contributions, but it is easy to imagine a "streamlining" of this process, such that taxation becomes more direct).

As for the latter accusation that the EU, good idea or not, is run by a lot of bad eggs...well. That one hardly needs proof.

On the other hand, there's this sunny view of things from the Economist, according to which evil has been defeated and we can all breathe a sigh of relief. This is, so far as I can tell, the prevailing view. Am I, absurdly, becoming concerned at that exact time when all cause for concern has vanished? The public has spoken, and "non" is its answer - right?

I wonder if all these sunny people have seen this page. Perhaps as an ignorant American I am profoundly misinterpreting this seemingly-straightforward list. What I see is that in the countries where no referendum was necessary, only a legislative vote - most of them ratified it with a yes/no ratio of more than ten. Ten yeses for every no. Belgium was an "exception" at 118-18-1 for its parliament and 54-9-1 for its senate. Cyprus was the real maverick; the yeses (30) only outnumbered the nos (19) by a hair over 50%. The most striking was Malta at 65-0-0, but they all voted yes.

I'm intepreting this to mean simply that the politicians really, really want that Constitution. Can a fragile majority in a handful of member states really stand in the way of such near-unanimous determination by their rulers?

Perhaps they really can. Or perhaps the seemingly-overwhelming support for the EU and its Constitution among the politicians, is some sort of artifact of a political process I do not understand. An artifact that occurred in 12 different parliaments...this would be reassuring, anyway, if true.

Monday, July 11, 2005

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Our Friends Across The Pond

Over here in America, I expect most of us are just like me and don't pay a fig of attention to the EU. Some of us might let out a cheer when a referendum on the EU Constitution fails, but as for actually reading the EU Constitution...let's just say that if you want a written Constitution, you could do a lot worse than ours - and the EU Constitution proves it. For all the flaws of that old chestnut from 1787, at least it's concise. Where as that European monstrosity looks suspiciously as if it were designed to discourage casual reading.

Alas for the EU that I had a slow work day today!

Now as I am an American who, again, knows zilch about the EU, my readers whose governments are members of that august body (let's call them Boeciana and Bettina), perhaps do not expect any new observations on said august body to emanate from said ignorant American.

Probably not, but as an American, I have the advantage of an historical experience that my European brethren lack (how often can an American say THAT?), unless they are familiar with American history - American legal history to be precise. We have some knowledge, through the sad history of our own Constitution and its Amendments, as to what, exactly, happens to a written Constitution as the decades progress. And in the EU's case, if they can push their Constitution through (and since every parliamentary vote on the Constitution has been something like 70-4 or worse, I do not expect that such a minor road-block as the popular will, can stop it for long), I think that events will proceed considerably faster than in our case.

Of course, it hardly takes an experience gleaned from history, to notice the most obvious things - first, that the areas of "shared competence" would swiftly become areas of "exclusive competence" under another name, and that the "principle of subsidiarity" which is supposed to prevent this, will be a feeble reed. Subsidiarity is a fine principle but a rotten law; you might as well put "the EU shall be governed with common sense" into the Constitution while you're at it. Perhaps throw in that the EU parliament should be composed of "good guys" - or is that actually in there? Second, that the areas of "shared competence" can be tweaked to encompass just about anything:

"1. The Union shall share competence with the Member States where the Constitution confers on it a competence which does not relate to the areas referred to in Articles I-13 and I-17.

2. Shared competence between the Union and the Member States applies in the following principal areas:

(a) internal market;

(b) social policy, for the aspects defined in Part III;

(c) economic, social and territorial cohesion;

(d) agriculture and fisheries, excluding the conservation of marine biological resources;

(e) environment;

(f) consumer protection;

(g) transport;

(h) trans-European networks;

(i) energy;

(j) area of freedom, security and justice;

(k) common safety concerns in public health matters, for the aspects defined in Part III.

3. In the areas of research, technological development and space, the Union shall have competence to carry out activities, in particular to define and implement programmes; however, the exercise of that competence shall not result in Member States being prevented from exercising theirs.

4. In the areas of development cooperation and humanitarian aid, the Union shall have competence to carry out activities and conduct a common policy; however, the exercise of that competence shall not result in Member States being prevented from exercising theirs."

Needless to say, you have to go to the mysterious part III to get the juicy details - can't make things too easy for the casual reader, right? But the main point is clear - "freedom, security, justice", "social policy", "transportation" - the EU would have "shared competence" in all this, and throw in the economy for good measure. Just what is left?

It's getting late, and I haven't said all that can be said on this nonsense, but I'll mention one more thing: google "EU Constitution", and the first thing that comes up is this lovely little piece, which is either Pollyanish in the extreme, or merely mendacious. Some interesting bits:

'The Union is said to be subsidiary to member states and can act only in those areas where "the objectives of the intended action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the member states but can rather... be better achieved at Union level."'

Really? As I understood it, the EU is to be governed "in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity", which is a very different thing indeed; it means that the Member States are subsidiary, but their (inferior) authority will be respected except in cases where the (superior) authority of the EU is needed. Maybe I missed something; I'll check back on this later. As it is, I suspect the BBC writer did not really know what he was talking about.

It [the office of the EU Foreign Minister] sounds grand, but the minister will only be able to speak on the EU's behalf when there is an agreed or common policy,"

This is a very important and very common idea: "common policy". In reference to war, the BBC interprets it thus:

It does not mean that a common foreign or defence policy will be imposed on member states. Each one will retain a right of veto and can go its own way."

Again, I have yet to find that in the Constitution. This, in turn, illustrates a problem with the EU Constitution that our, in general, did not share: the framers of this Constitution are extremely reluctant to explain exactly what happens when the EU clashes with national governments. That alone, apart from the specifics of the cases, is rather worrying.

Friday, July 08, 2005

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It's amazing how much you can learn just by reading those books you never got around to reading. After perusing Aristotle's Poetics or Metaphysics, it's amusing to see the similarities between his time and ours - the bloviating critics, the latest trendy thinkers, the poseur artists, the real artists, the intellectual fads that make no sense in retrospect (Pythagorean numerology? I had no idea how significant a force this was in Greek thought, including Plato. Even Aristotle's refutation of it is nearly incomprehensible, much less the attraction of the original theory). Yet there was a great gulf as well - they stood at the beginning of a long tradition, of which we stand at the end. There was a freshness to their speculations, even the silly ones; looking at these "giants" of earlier days, I cannot help reflecting on the terrible age of our civilization - it is all the more striking in that it does not necessarily manifest itself in individuals, who presumably feel as young and vigorous as they ever did; it is only their ideas that are clouded and maimed by half-remembered arguments in centuries-old disputes, which applies not only to philosophy but to the modern mind in general (a mindset from which I scarcely exempt myself).

It also sheds a bit of light on Belloc's contempt for the "abolition of Homer"; Aristotle speaks of him quite definitely as one, quite real man (and he does not do this in the manner of one who declines to dispute some commonplace notion; he speaks of Homer's magnificence in quite a fannish-sounding way, which implies a very definite opinion as to Homer's existence. Though I've heard that the Poetics, in turn, have their own dubious passages; whether this all really came from Aristotle I don't know), and it displays a certain arrogance to simply brush aside this certitude. After all, neither he nor any of his contemporaries were ever asked to defend their view that Homer was real - what crushing proofs might they have offered, against the scholarly objections to his existence? It is absurd to say that merely because men have applied certain analytical techniques to the Illiad and Odyssey, that we are better-placed than Aristotle to pronounce on such a matter. Even in linguistic concerns they had enourmous advantages that we lack; ancient Greek was a living language that they knew with an intimacy which simply cannot be replicated today. Furthermore, in considering deviations in style, it is obvious that we must know the degree of eccentricity typical in a single writer, or the degree of variation typical between writers; of these, the ancient Greeks had a vastly superior knowledge.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

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I don't usually worry about what's going to become of our civilization; what point is there in doing so, after all, unless some specific course of action suggests itself? Yet when we hear about what happened today in London, I wonder - how long will these attacks continue, and if it be much longer, how well can we endure it?

Since the invention of explosives, attacks of this sort have been possible, yet they have generally not been a danger - I seem to recall that anarchist groups committed a number of bombings in Edwardian England, and likewise in other parts of the civilized world they have occurred at various times, but for the most part bombs have not been used in public places by civilians, and not because of technical difficulties but because this sort of thing "wasn't done".

Now, there are apparently a good many savages who are willing to do it - for how long? It is not impossible to restructure our societies so that attacks of this sort cannot happen, but this would require a radical upheaval and many difficult concessions on our part, and so for some time we will all be vulnerable to such bombings. There will be terrorists willing to take advantage of this - but how many? Will they become less numerous, or more? And if more, what will happen? Will we simply try to weather the storm, or will this become impossible as the deaths increase? Will we institute such draconian security measures as would actually prevent such mass murders? Or will we take the path of appeasement? The last course is the most frightening possibility, yet all of them are repugnant.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

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Back when I read science fiction all the time, I also read a bit about science fiction, which naturally introduced me to an (in ordinary circles) highly-obscure magazine editor from the 30's and 40's named John W. Campbell. To his "stable" of American science-fiction writers, he was practically a father-figure (Robert Heinlein being a notable exception; for all his blind spots, grotesqueries and obsceneties, Heinlein possessed the only noteworthy intellect among the sf writers of the day - he was something of a belated American "answer" to Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells - and was not overawed by the great editor). Campbell inspired or simply provided many of their story ideas, and taught them (inasmuch as they ever learned it) the craft of writing. One of them returned the favor by inventing his own religion and converting Campbell, along with the Canadian sf-writer A.E. van Vogt - this was L. Ron Hubbard, inventor of "Dianetics", later renamed "Scientology". But enough history; the point is that Campbell often urged his writers to write about "something that thinks as well as a man, but not like a man." It was not something at which they were particularly successful.

The main reason that anyone would find this a tall order, of course, is that if you want to think as well as a man, you often do have to think like a man. Trying to find some sort of "alternate way of thinking" is not merely difficult through the alienness of what one is trying to imagine; it is difficult because it is impossible.

Of course one can imagine an intelligent being whose passions and appetites are very different or absent. But this is different. And I think that a lot of the controversy over "metaphysics" has much to do with the belief that it really is possible to think differently from a human being in some very fundamental ways. After all, Kant's question about whether "such a thing as the metaphysical is at all possible" (sorry, don't know original German) is quite silly; anyone who doesn't believe in "the metaphysical" doesn't believe in mathematics. To be sure, there are plenty of people who claim not to believe in mathematics, and consider it merely a human construct whose conclusions reflect no absolute truth but are merely the "results" of playing by certain "rules". Some of these people are mathematicians themselves, but this does not make them any less absurd. Their opinions are manifest sophistry and can be dismissed for our purposes, and so the fact that there are non-physical things about which we can make true statements is not seriously questionable.

The question is whether our classifications and divisions are subject to the same standard of absolute truth or falsity, or whether they are merely conveniences got up for the occasion, no more true or false than a wrench is true or false. Three pertinent questions are: do people classify things in the same way? If they don't, are some of them just doing it wrong? And if they do, is it still possible some differently-constructed mind could adhere to a different scheme and get along just fine? Not to belabor the obvious too much, but we generally divide the world into different substances or "things", their parts, and their qualities. We sort all these into genera and species - that is, "general" classifications, "specific" classifications within the genus, and substances which belong to the species.

It is plain enough that if a creature thinks of the world in the same way, it more or less "thinks like a man"; such a creature could understand us, and we it. It is also fairly clear that while clever people may "talk a good game" against this scheme of operation, insisting that divisions are false and all is one, or that classifications are false and all is sundered, they still divide and classify when they are not lecturing us on evils of same, and even when they are. They say that it is merely a matter of "convenience" that they make such "provisional statements" or some such, but is there any conceivable situation where these provisions are unnecessary? Or where these "provisional statements" must not be provided on much the same lines as human beings have always provided them? And if certain habits and laws of division and classification are invariably necessary to thought, it is a mere matter of words to insist that division and class are still not "absolute" and that the "metaphysical" is still just a lot of moonshine.

In light of all this, it is interesting to consider the various attempts of ambitious sf-writers to hypothesize a creature that thinks along entirely different lines, whether an alien, or a human being treated with Special Formula X - if you are not familiar with the latter story, allow me to summarize it:

Day 1: the doctors have advised me to keep a journal of my progress as they begin the injections of Special Formula X.

Day 7: I impressed my physician considerably by singing the libretto of "The HMS Penafore" backwards. Special Formula X appears to be having unusual effects. I do not think I have yet reached my full potential.

Day 17: from the manner in which my doctor scratched his earlobe, I immediately deduced that in 17 minutes a man named George with a brown - no, rust-colored, yes rust-colored - mustache will knock me over the head and take me to a laboratory where my brain will be pickled and cut into little slices. Breaking out of the hospital was of course child's play; I am currently fleeing the governments of several countries - not that this is difficult or anything.

Day 25: human problems have ceased to interest my gigantic intellect. I think that I will take up golf.

Day 30: attempting to express my thoughts in human language is excruciatingly painful and absurd; I feel as if I am trying to weave a tapestry with an inch-thick needle while wearing greased oven mitts. However I will continue bloviating in this vein until some sort of dramatic resolution is reached.

Day 35: some sort of dramatic resolution is reached.

Anyway, the "different ways of thinking" that they devise, seem only to reinforce the conclusion that as far as rational thought is concerned, it's largely our way or the highway. Whenever the alien scheme diverges from our own, it is manifestly riddled with logical and practical flaws. But at least these writers deserve credit for attempting, albeit unsystematically, to consider the question "what other metaphysical framework could possibly make sense?" instead of blithely declaring that "metaphysics" is somehow invalid because it is a "human construct", without honestly considering if any other construct is possible, or if this construct is in fact dispensible - or in what sense an inevitable and indispensable "construct" is really a construct at all (certainly it is, in some sense, inasmuch as metaphysical terms and so forth were invented by men), and in what sense it exists outside of any human "construction".