A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Quotes of the Day

But isn’t objectivity an ideal? No: because the purpose of human knowledge—indeed, of human life itself—is not accuracy, and not even certainty; it is understanding.
-- John Lukacs

Our own age is also "a period," and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.
-- C.S. Lewis

Finally, an old inspiring quote from the Late Dr. Jack Kevorkian, known with tender affection as Dr. Death.  Sometimes the mask slips, a little.
I feel it is only decent and fair to explain my ultimate aim . . . It is not simply to help suffering or doomed persons to kill themselves—that is merely the first step, an early distasteful professional obligation (now called medicide) . . . What I find most satisfying is the prospect of making possible the performance of invaluable experiments or other beneficial medical acts under conditions that this first unpleasant step can help establish—in a word, obitiatry. [emph. added]
-- J. Kevorkian, Prescription: Medicide, p. 214


  1. I admire your willingness to slog through at least 214 pages of that murderer's musings so that the good guys can have at hand some kind of ready response. I will say a prayer that your soul recovers fully from having been subjected to it, and thanksgiving that more of us are therefore spared the necessity of a similar assault.

  2. I like the first quote very much, but partly as an honest question, and partly to learn how to answer those who ask less honestly: If the purpose of human knowledge is understanding, how can one have understanding if one has neither accuracy nor certainty?

    Much of the AGW debacle, it seemed to me, came about because the majority of the scientists involved honestly felt (at least at first) that their "understanding" of the overall situation was true enough that individual inaccuracies or uncertainties of actual data were irrelevant.

    1. The three intellective virtues are understanding, knowledge, and wisdom. The latter two are sometimes distinguished by noting that the knowledgeable man knows that a tomato is a fruit; but the wise man knows that you do not put tomatoes in fruit salad. Understanding means you know why you don't. Knowledge of facts is insufficient, since facts have no values. No matter how accurately you know the population of Philadelphia (for example) you will not understand Philadelphia. In fact, the more accurate the number is, the less true it becomes. The population of Philadelphia is in constant flux, so whatever the figure is becomes false the next time someone is born, dies, or relocates. Furthermore, who counts as an inhabitant of the city is a human-decided contingency based on an understanding of the purpose to which the number will be directed (i.e., of final causes). A number for the purpose of allocating Congress may require a different definition than one for the purpose of marketing shampoo.
      IIRC, Lukacs touched on this in his The Passing of the Modern Age.

      Never trust anyone who "feels" they understand. Understanding is not an emotion, but a strength of the intellect.

    2. I appreciate the distinction, but I admit I'm still confused; one may have the wisdom to know one should not put a tomato in a fruit salad and the understanding to know why, but it strikes me that if you don't know what a tomato actually *looks* like, that understanding will do one no good at all. Knowledge of facts may be insufficient, but it is clearly a necessary part of the process.

      Likewise, while perfect accuracy may be impossible to achieve or maintain, to say "the purpose of human knowledge... is not accuracy" sounds disquietingly close to saying the size of the error bars doesn't matter as long as the conclusion happens to match reality, or match what one perceives to be reality. There *is* a difference between saying, "Philadelphia's population is 6 million, plus or minus 50,000," and "Philadelphia's population is 6 million, plus or minus 5 million", even if neither number is "accurate". (I leave aside here the political temptation to shift the goalposts on what size of error bar "matters" and what size doesn't based on the issue in question, as that is universal and incidental to my concern besides.)

      And since it is entirely possible for someone to be sincerely convinced they understand something and still be mistaken, through ignorance or error, it seems to me that if objectivity is not *the* be-all end-all ideal, it is certainly indispensable to realizing the ideals we do espouse.

      I apologize for buttonholing you on this when it is not even your quote, and I understand if you would rather say, "Look, just go read Lukacs," but I have always found your blog very enlightening and enjoyable to read. I hope that blatant flattery mitigates the aggravation of my obtuseness somewhat.

    3. All three intellective virtues are needed to strengthen the intellect. Lukacs was warning against supposing that the collection of more and better facts was sufficient.

      For example, when did World War II begin?

    4. Well, the formal date of declaration of war would be September 3, 1939, after Germany invaded Poland. (I'm absurdly proud of myself that I didn't have to look that up. And will be absurdly embarrassed if it turns out it was the 1st, instead.)

    5. Why not 7 July 1937? Did WWII not include fighting in China, the Pacific, Burma?

      Why not 7 Dec 1941? Is that not when the European War and the China-Pacific war combined into a single world war?

      IOW, what we mean by accuracy is posterior to our understanding of what we are being accurate about.

    6. I think I see your point, but I have to say it sounds a little circular, at least in that particular example: the accuracy of any statement about when "World War II" started depends on your understanding of what events "World War II" entailed, but any definition of what events it entailed requires agreeing upon when it started.

      Perhaps I'm simply understanding "accuracy" incorrectly; to me it means simply getting the factual data right. If I say, "WW2 started with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939," you can argue that that statement is inaccurate by citing July 1937; if I say, "WW2 started with the German invasion of Poland in June 19*2*9," that *is* inaccurate because it's simply wrong, by ten years. It's this latter kind of accuracy that seems indispensable to understanding, to me, and it's this latter kind where objectivity is equally indispensable.

      (To go back to AGW, for example, I took the alarmists' arguments seriously as long as I believed they were simply convinced of one interpretation of the data; I stopped buying them the moment it became obvious they had *fudged* the data. If accuracy is determined by understanding, then it seems all too easy for evidence to be tailored to the desired conclusion rather than the conclusion being derived from the verifiable evidence.)

    7. Lest I give further aggravation, however, I should concede that I do understand what you mean, and will not take up further combox space; I appreciate your patience in answering.

    8. To go back to AGW, for example, I took the alarmists' arguments seriously as long as I believed they were simply convinced of one interpretation of the data; I stopped buying them the moment it became obvious they had *fudged* the data.

      It's amusing that, as the predictions of the "alarmists" from 30 years ago have proven to be to timid, you use the term without irony.

  3. This CS Lewis quote is also good
    "The sciences bring to the facts the values they claim to derive from them"
    The Pilgrim's regress.

    To change the topic, but staying within science, Father Stanley Jaki has complained that the Copenhagen interpretation relies on an equivocation and is thus fallacious.
    It assumes that if a property can not be measured exactly, then it does not exist exactly. The equivocation was noticed by a Mr Turner in Nature 1930 but it did not seem to have made any impact on leading physicists.

    I have myself read quantum mechanics and still remember myself surprised by the arguments given on behalf of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. To me, to have a minimum precision in the measurement of corresponding variables (such as position and momentum) is straightforward but the conclusion to a fundamental ontological defect in nature and absence of microscopic causality was making too much of a mountain out of a molehill.

    I would appreciate some of your valuable thoughts and comments.

    1. The equations output probability distributions, and these have been taken as meaning that the real world is probabilistic. But then there is the many-worlds interpretation, Cramer's transactional theory, etc. Heisenberg considered that "It has become clear that the desired objective reality of the elementary particle is too crude an oversimplification of what really happens." Which means that materialism cannot explain matter. He said that physics was no longer about reality but the physicist's perception of reality. These are statements of epistemology rather than ontology.

      Wolfgang Smith said once that if a theory resulted in paradoxes and singularities, it was a sign that there is something wrong with the theory.

    2. I think that saying everything is a relativistic quantum field is a statement of ontology.

  4. Do you know of any interpretation of quantum mechanics that meets Father Jaki's objection?
    Many-worlds does not, I am sure. Things are still uncertain there till measurement (or splitting of wave function) occurs.

    "Which means that materialism cannot explain matter. "
    What would that even mean? It seems to deny the possibility of autonomous "natures" and thus lead to the viewpoint that sees God as actively intruding on nature at every moment--a kind of occasional-ism of Occam and Averroes.

    1. Objective qualities (which Aristotle called the "common sensibles") were defined by Galileo, Descartes, and the rest as those residing in the object. They included such things as length, weight, shape, location, number, etc. (Other qualities - color, sound, pain, etc. - resided in the subject, and were called "subjective." These were what Aristotle called the "proper sensibles.") But what is the shape of an atom? What is the location of a subatomic particle? According to Aristotle, and Thomas, the sensibles - including the common sensibles - have always been an interaction between a reality in the world and the mind of man.

      In the Aristotelian tradition, matter has always been remote and mysterious, the principle of potency. What we grasp is the form, which is immaterial. Matter could be anything, depending on what form is given it.

    2. Is this right? Are you denying the existence of a human mind-independent reality?.

      I do not know about matter and form. What I care is that the thing, that object that stands before me, that exists and has properties independent of me.

    3. No, only that it is mysterious and difficult to grasp. Prime matter is pure potency, so there is nothing actual about it. What we grasp is the form it takes, such as "quark" (a term in a mathematical model that might have physical reality) or "carbon"or "donut" or "Jay-Lo." Of course these are extra-mental. That something is not materialistic does not mean that it is found in the closet of the mind. That was an old dodge that the Scientific Revolutionaries used to deal with things they could not explain, like color.

    4. But the thing itself is prior to the form, I should say, in the sense that we register the thing first. The form of a thing is a theoretical construct but thing is real prior to any theory.

      My question is, do you agree with the physicists that a quantum particle lacks definite properties unless the particle undergoes a measurement?

    5. Good question. May depend on which physicists one asks. Heisenberg said that physics was no longer about reality, but about the physicist's perception of reality. This would certainly seem to demote the material world, at least in the Copenhagen view.

      Re: grasping the thing first. Every thing is some thing; that is, it has some form in order to be grasped. The first form grasped would seem to be its form of existence. That may be what you're thinking of.

  5. Matter could be anything, depending on what form is given it.

    I suppose that this means materialism recognizes form after all.