Saturday, January 28, 2012

It's Only a Theory

The Commemoration of St. Thomas Aquinas
Today is the Commemoration of St. Thomas Aquinas, moved; and so in commemoration we will consider the manner in which he is misunderstood in the present day.

Some of this is due to a broader misunderstanding -- of the metaphysics of Aristotle.  Many terms of art, like "matter" and "motion," are used today in different senses than they were when he wrote, and so it happens that what he wrote is oft misread.

But TOF, you say, since we are talking about SF, what will be the SF connection?

Patience, my pretties.  All will become clear, for some values of "clear."

More below the cut

The Importance of Being Thomas
There are a number of reasons why Thomas is important to us today.  Two that are pertinent here:
  1. First, he emphasized that truth is one.  In his day, there were some who claimed that a statement could be "true in philosophy, but false in religion" and vice-versa.  Thomas said this was bushwah, or some Latin equivalent of bushwah.  Truth is one since all truth comes from God, who is Truth.  If a truth of philosophy/science seems to contradict a truth of religion, then we are dealing either with bad philosophy or bad religion - or both.  This is one reason why, along with Augustine and other earlier Doctors, he rejected the naive-literal reading of scriptures that has become au courant since the rise of Science™. 
    Remember, "truth" is a verb: you must be true to something.  True to your spouse (to whom you are be-truthed), true to your convictions, fiction is true to life, natural science is true to metrical facts about the natural world.  Friends are true to each other, and so on.  There may even be, contra argumentum, a true Scotsman.  It's root meaning is faithful.  So there are a great many truths: in art, music, literature, science, religion, humanism, and so on.  But "the English," said Oscar Wilde, "are always degrading truths into facts."  And it is possibly relevant that so many of the self-proclaimed "new atheists" are English or of English stock. 
  2. fMRI scan shows dead fish
    making a "free will" decision
  3. A second reason is Thomas' utter dedication to reason.  Not for him were the fiery denunciations or fideist maunderings the modern age has accustomed us to hearing from atheists and other fundamentalists, where the clever quip or the sophomoronic joke takes the place of giving reasons.  There are those even who seek to reduce reasons to mere mechanical causes, so that reason itself may is blithely deconstructed.  We need ol' Tom's rationalism like we need a whap in the face with a dead salmon
Both these things are true even if you were to reject Thomas' reasons for believing them. 

Now, on to the Fiction.

Fiction is driven by conflict.  The protagonist's intention encounters some opposing force.  That force might be nature itself - a mountain to be climbed, or an acceleration to be endured (as in Heinlein's short story "Sky Lift").  It might be some flaw in the character himself (again citing Heinlein, "Ordeal in Space," in which a former space worker must overcome his agoraphobia acquired in the course of his work).  More often, the opposing force is an antagonist: another character with intentions opposing those of the protagonist.  In melodrama, this is Snidely Whiplash, who evidently has no other purpose in life but to oppose Dudley Do-Right.  In genuine drama, the opponent has purposes which he himself sees as goods and which it is the author's duty to present honestly to the reader.

A particular form of this is tragedy, which is not a conflict between good and evil, but a conflict between two goods.  This is the case even when the author takes sides.  For example, in my own book In the Country of the Blind, both the Babbage Society and Utopian Research Associates conceive themselves as doing good.  But the less the author's thumb is on the scales, the better.  The reader ought to sympathize with both opposing goods.  Should the One Ring be thrown into Mount Doom, or should its power be used to defends and save Gondor?  We can see why Boromir acts as he does and sympathize with him to some extent.  Why not save Gondor first, then throw the Ring in the volcano?

Much of SF, however, is driven by melodrama.  In the old sort, the humans fight inexplicably hostile bugs from space and triumph (or not).  In the new sort of melodrama, the good guys are shown as the bad guys.  The Disney movie Avatar is an example of this.  In Stranger in a Strange Land, everyone who opposes Mike is foolish, ignorant, biased, or otherwise Not Like Us Fans (who are Slans). 

The Conflict of Misunderstanding.
One of the ways in which your characters might come into conflict is through misunderstanding.  Facts are not self-demonstrating.  They have no meaning as fact.  They only become "truth-bearers" when meaning is given to them by an actor.  In mathematical logic, it is known that through any finite set of facts, many theories can be drawn.  This is known as the problem of underdetermination in natural science; but it applies to your characters, as well.  Given the same set of factual circumstances, two characters may "see" those facts in different ways. 
Fact comes from a verbal participle, factum est, which means "that which has the property of having been made or accomplished."  It is cognate with the word feat.  And in German is still obvious: the term Tatsache means literally "deed-matter."  When Jane Austen wrote "gracious in fact as well as words," she meant "gracious in deeds as well as words."  Only lately have fact and feat parted company.  Meaning comes from constructing the facts in some fashion, connecting one fact to another in certain ways.  But the word for a construction or shaping is fictio, fictionis.  And so any shaping of facts is a fiction; and fiction as we use the term is an arrangement of imaginary deeds/facts.  And it is this shaping that gives the events [and the story] meaning.  (This is why writers committed to Sartrean existentialism tend to write stories that don't cohere: the whole point they're trying to make is that there is no meaning in life.) 
In the Louis L'Amour western The Daybreakers, Tom Sunday is a friend of Orrin and Tyrel Sackett and they go through all sorts of tribulations together; but in the end Sunday comes into conflict with Orrin, with tragic results.  (In a way, it would be as if Jubal Harshaw and Michael Valentine Smith of Stranger in a Strange Land would come in the end into deadly conflict because, in a lapse of grokkiness, each had a different vision of what the new church would mean.)  What happens is that the four friends discover some cash in the burnt ruin of a covered wagon.  After burying the dead, Tom Sunday wants to split the cash; but Orrin says they should telegraph a relative mentioned in the letters they found and offer her the money.  Cap, the fourth cowboy, tells Tom you know what the right thing is to do.  And he does.   Tom agrees to contact the relative. But where Orrin saw Tom's essential goodness brought round, Tom saw Orrin as a moral blackmailer and prig.  The reader knows that both men are good men, and is horrified as they come more and more into conflict. 

In order to present such misunderstandings, the author must actually understand - and to some degree - empathize with both pro- and antagonist.  Where the author himself shares the misunderstanding of one character, the other character will begin to feel like a caricature.  This is true even if - perhaps, especially if - the misunderstanding is a foolish one. In order to present the "other side," you must actually understand the other side. You've got to see Tom Sunday's point of view as well as Orrin Sackett's. 

Darwinism's just a theory
Is a line that makes us weary
It's Just a Theory
The word 'theory' is one of those terms on which dissonance can build.  You sometimes encounter people saying "Evolution is just a theory!" who are countered by people saying, "Right... like gravitation is just a theory?"  The usual subtext is that "theory doesn't mean the same thing in science as in ordinary speech."  And of course it does not.  But it is not because a theory that has been confirmed often enough becomes a fact.  As it is, gravitation really is a theory; but evolution is not.

A fact is something observed: falling bodies.  A theory is a story we tell ourselves which makes sense out of those facts: gravitation.  So that whereas a fact is neither true nor false, a theory, being a proposition about some facts, can be true.  Specifically, "true to the facts."  While bodies will always fall in the same way, the theories that explain them may vary.  Gravity, as such, is not a fact.  (Newton was acutely aware of this.)  Simil atque, evolution is observable fact: species do come into existence and pass out of existence and may change over time.  Natural selection is a theory that tries to explain those facts. 
The "No true Scotsman fallacy" fallacy stems from confusing whether a person is a Scotsman in fact versus whether he is true to Scottish principles and ideals.  
Rabbi Wolpe
Because there can be multiple theories explaining the same facts, theories in natural science can always be falsified.  (The same is not the case with "facts," which can only be measured or observed more accurately.)  Dr. J. Coyne, our favorite philosophical naif, argued recently contra a rabbi Wolpe, who contended that what science accepts as truths today will in a few hundred years be seen as wrong. Wolpe cited phlogiston as an example.   

Dr. Coyne and friend
Now this is nothing more than garden-variety Popperism; but Coyne countered "in two hundred years water will still be seen to have two hydrogens and one oxygen."  The perceptive bystander can see where the dissonance arises.  Wolpe argued that scientific understandings (theories) come and go; Coyne's rebuttal was that scientific observations (facts) do not.  Thus, the spectacle of two individuals, both entirely correct, in vehement debate because at least one (Coyne) has an incomplete notion of what the other (Wolpe) has said. 

This has the makings of a drawing-room drama like Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen in which Bohr and Heisenberg misunderstand each other. Reviewers have said the same about many of my stories; and George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series can almost be defined as no two people have the same understanding of what is happening. 

Scarecrow has courage and heart
But he is not very smart
The Straw Man
It is easy to thrash a straw man.  Galileo did this with his Dialogue on Two World Systems, when he set in opposition two systems that had already been discarded (Copernican and Ptolemaic) and ignored the two systems then still in contention (Keplerian and Tychonic) -- and then made the Ptolemaic arguments weak and placed them in the mouth of the Simpleton.  (Remember, at the time of writing there was no empirical evidence that could decide the matter between Kepler and Tycho.) 

Giant carrot from outer space
menaces Antarctic base
This is something we love to do with characters we find disagreeable; but it is not true to art.  Like the scientist in the original The Thing, who wants to reason with the rampaging carrot from outer space, acts as he does because that's what naive, unworldly scientists do, while his hard-headed companions know they have to destroy it for their own safety.  One may also find examples of "military thinking" or military people that are equally caricatured. The same goes for medieval and in earlier decades "oriental" or "negro" characters.  Ming the Merciless says all we need to know about Ming.  He is not conflicted.  He knows his center.  And if you are writing in the traditions of the chansons de geste, that may be perfectly okay.  But not if you are writing in the traditions of the roman or novel.

Wait a minute, TOF (I hear you say).  What happened to Thomas Aquinas?

That excursus brings us back to the Angelic Doctor, and how things that he had written can be misunderstood today. 

Cosmological Constants
One of the constants is the misunderstanding of Aquinas' so-called cosmological arguments, as well as the teleological argument.  The most recent sighting was in John Farrell's column, reviewing Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.  To wit:
Logically speaking [Iqbal said] the movement from the finite to the infinite as embodied in the cosmological argument is quite illegitimate...
And for Iqbal, the teleological argument is no better. [...] ‘At best, it gives us a skillful external contriver working on a pre-existing dead and intractable material, the elements of which are, by their own nature, incapable of orderly structures and combinations.…
Which anyone familiar with either argument recognizes as utterly missing the point of both arguments.  This is a bit like having a character "refute" evolution by pointing out that cats never give birth to dogs.  This leaves those in the know in the peculiar position of watching their opponents off down the corner taunting someone else entirely -- and then bragging how they took on the champ and won.  The cosmological argument is based precisely the impossibility of a realized infinity; and the teleological argument presumes that matter is not "dead and intractable" but "points toward" something outside itself.  So Aquinas would have agreed with Iqbal on these two points!
Iqbal may have been thinking of Paley's "watchmaker" argument, which is a modernist innovation that bears no resemblance to the teleological argument.  Paley's Watchmaker is an example of how centuries of ignoring classical arguments result in caricatures of them. 

A Necessary Misunderstanding
More recently, in Jerry Coyne's Modal Confusion, The Maverick Philosopher cited another misunderstanding from the cornucopia that is Jerry Coyne.  Reacting to an argument by the philosopher Alvin Plantinga, Dr. Coyne produced the following theological statement with all the insight and authority of a biologist: 
No theologian in the world is going to convince me that it’s impossible for God to fail to exist because he’s a “necessary being.” Science has shown that he’s not “necessary” for anything we know about the universe.
Alvin Plantinga
It has occurred to a number of folks, including other atheists, that Dr. Coyne had no idea what Plantinga meant by "necessary being."  Because he is trained in using the scientific method, Coyne can only parse the phrase as meaning "necessary" as an explanans for some routine natural phenomenon.  But as Cardinal Schönborn commented "Scientists are most welcome to 'explain everything they need to without appeal to God;' indeed, I hope all ... would join me in strenuously objecting if God is ever invoked in the course of normal scientific explanation!"  So if "necessary" does not mean "required to produce a scientific observation," what does it mean? 

In the context of the argument from contingency, "necessary being" means what theologians have always meant: a being which does not depend for its existence on another.  It does not mean that the being is necessary for making a cup of tea or repairing a Volvo station wagon. 
Cloudy weather overcast
May not last
Without getting into gory details....  We observe that each observable being depends on something else for its being.  Clouds do not contain within themselves the principle of their own existence, because they come into being and pass out of being.  We explain clouds by referring to atmospheric conditions of one sort or another.  But these atmospheric conditions are themselves brought about by (among other things) the sun.  But the sun also comes into being and passes out of being and cannot contain the principle of its own existence.  And so on.  The same is true of things that seem permanent: the mountains are uplifted and eroded.  Species evolve into being and evolve out of being. While a species may have the potency to become other than what it is, it requires something outside itself -- the Umwelt, or Nature -- to bring a new species into being, the process being called 'natural selection.' 
But contingent being cannot regress infinitely, because if it did there would ultimately be nothing to explain existence.  (And we are taking existence as given by sense experience.  Idealists will have to wait.)  Therefore, there must exist a being which does not exist contingently, but contains within itself the principle of its own existence.  This is called a necessary being: a being whose essence just is to exist.  We may for short call this being Existence Itself.  Such a being cannot fail to exist.  If Existence Itself did not exist, then nothing else would have existence. 
Now, whether you buy this argument (in its more rigorous version) or not, it is clear that just as my desire for a cup of tea is not necessary to explain the physics of boiling water, Existence Itself is not "necessary" to explain a scientific law -- save in the trivial sense that if nothing exists it would be hard to come up with a scientific experiment.  But Existence is something the scientist takes for granted, not a term in any of his equations. That's why it is meta-physics, not physics. 

IOW, it's not that Thomas arbitrarily decided God was "necessary" for physics to work and therefore declared he must exist.  (I'm not sure why people who are smart in one field assume that others are stupid in their field.)  Thomas concluded from the existence of contingent being that necessary being must exist, and that this necessary being was what we called God.  The deduction was the opposite of what Coyne supposed.  Now, I will again remind folks that you don't have to buy the argument; but you ought to know what the argument actually is in order to reject it.  
Dr. Coyne and his Greek chorus are also puzzled how this necessary being possesses divine attributes and supposes that they are simply arbitrarily assigned by "believers."  This is not actually the case, but is a misunderstanding that is almost inevitable given that he imagines "God" as a sort of "supreme being," as evidenced by his sophomoric use of terms like "sky father."  (Cardinal Schönborn remarked in a letter to a physicist that he did not believe in that sort of god, either.)  The so-called "divine attributes" are simply logical deductions from the nature of necessary being. 

Through a Glass, Darkly
In George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series we continually see different characters reading the same (facts) events differently.  That is, they develop different theories to explain the facts as they know them.  People whose values differ are likely to view the same facts in very different ways because they have been filtered through their own expectations.  A Marxist friend of mine sees every recession as the final proof of the collapse of capitalism. A little off the Thomistic orbit, we juxtapose this exchange:

  • Rabbi Wolpe: Science is a tool for discovering truths about physical reality. As our most powerful tool, it is a natural — though mistaken — leap of logic to suppose that the things to which this tool applies are the only things that really exist.
  • Dr. Coyne: Science doesn’t rule out an afterlife because we can’t investigate it; we rule it out because there’s no evidence for it. [or for "a sky father that doesn’t want you to eat bacon."] 

Coyne wrote this with no evident realization that he was simply reinforcing Wolpe's argument.  As Cardinal Schönborn wrote in The Designs of Science, "It comes as no surprise that reductionist science cannot recognize those very aspects of reality that it excludes—or at least, seeks to exclude—by its choice of method."  This is like declaring that only the use of a metal detector is legitimate and then announcing that there is "no evidence" for wood. No one will ever discover bacteria if the only method allowed is a telescope.  As I mentioned in a previous post, a physicist who measures the burner temperature, water temperature, vapor pressure, water volume, heat conductivity of the kettle, and so on will be able to explain everything about boiling water except that I wanted a cup of tea. 

This is lagniappe:

Quem dei volunt perdere, dementat prius

Coyne wrote, "I like P.Z. [Meyers]’s point that our cognitive faculties aren’t fully reliable and that’s why we need science as a check on illusions." This led one of his cheerleaders to comment on the reliability of reason: "Except, of course, that it isn’t. We now know that human beings are subject to a wide variety of biases, delusions, heuristics, and cognitive limitations."(*)

How scientists, or even biologists, might be immune from these "cognitive limitations" even collectively, is left unexplained.  Daniel Dennett declares that "evolution" causes us to see patterns with no guarantee that these patterns are truthful.  But that applies equally well to the patterns we call scientific laws.  Of course, what they are doing is confusing "the reliability of human reason" with "the reliability of the human reason of Jerry Coyne" [or any other individual person] and messing it up with "cognitive faculties."  Hence, the belief that if Coyne is mistaken in seeing a certain pattern in the data, someone else, like Shapiro, may see it more clearly, and thus serve as a check.  However, if Dennett is right, and the tendency is common to all humans, there is no guarantee that the cognitive faculties of any of them have grasped the truth. 

Elsewhere in the comm boxes, respondents have denied the reality of mathematical propositions.  Since much of physics consists of mathematical formalisms, this undermines Hawking's argument that "the laws of physics" can bring the universe out of nothing.(**) If those "laws" do not "really" exist, then how can they do jack squat?  If our "cognitive faculties" are unreliable, that undermines the basis for empirical science.  Then (as we have recently seen) we learn we have no free will (or even will at all), which means that a wind of meaningless particles blowing through the neuron branches of the brain produces conclusions which we have no choice whether to "believe" or not.  Which sort of makes scientific conclusions meaningless.   

So it seems we end up with a general attack on reason itself, which brings us back to Tommy Aquino, who stood foursquare in its favor.  

(*) cognitive limitations.  As if Aristotle, Aquinas, and the rest were unaware of the problem of the proper and common sensibles.  At least they specified what the problems were and did not wave vaguely the notion of "limitations."
(**) out of nothing.  "Nothing" is another term that seems widely misunderstood by this crowd. Basically, it means exactly that: no thing.  If I said I saw nobody in my kitchen, you would not ask for a description or ask if he frothed with virtual particle pairs.  So why postulate a nothing all full of somethings? 


  1. But facts do not exist independently of the theories.
    That water is H2O is not a fact in the same way 'Sun rises in the East' is a fact. In fact, the H2O fact only makes sense within the atomistic theory of matter.

    Thus the fact/theory distinction is more subtle than you make out. Similarly evolution is hardly a basic fact. The basic facts are old bones and fossils found within rock layers. That these old bones and fossils represent ancient and extinct species is a story ie a theory in your terms.

  2. Now, I will again remind folks that you don't have to buy the argument; but you ought to know what the argument actually is in order to reject it.

    What makes Coyne's modal confusion so embarrassing in this case is that you don't even need to understand Thomas's particular argument to know that "necessary being" means "non-contingent being" in philosophy. That's one of the few terms used by Thomas that *haven't* changed common meaning in the intervening centuries, and which is still commonly employed even by non-Thomists.

    Modern philosophers still bring up the concept all the time in the context of how a necessary being is one that "exists in all possible worlds" and so forth. And even if you don't understand the phrase the very first time you hear it, it should still be possible to infer what they mean by it with only a minimal amount of reading and reflection.

    It really is the philosophical equivalent of "If people evolved from monkeys, there wouldn't be any monkeys anymore!" - ie, it displays such depths of fundamental misconception and ignorance on the topic that it's not even wrong.

  3. Slashdot linked to a story today about how science has now discovered that causes and facts are different things, and has concluded that therefore nothing can be figured out at all. (The headline is "Why Science Has Failed Us.")

    Nobody seems to have figured out that this is like complaining because science doesn't paint the Mona Lisa and perform interpretive dance, science has failed us.

    1. Well, science has failed the people who thought that science could explain everything, or at least everything important (or, rather, they think that science has failed them because their faculties of critical thought already failed them previously when they were developing their expectations for science).

    2. No, by not performing interpretive dance, science has sure done us all a great boon.

  4. Excuse me. It's "Trials and Errors: Why Science Is Failing Us." It links to a Wired article.

    The drama of it all....


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