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Darwinism and intelligent design

I don’t know much about the topic in its specific sense as a theory opposed to Darwinism. Some ideas associated with it do seem to make sense. It seems to me, for example, that mathematical analysis and basic physics and chemistry ought to set outer bounds on what random variation and natural selection can do, and so cast light on their plausibility as explanations for how life has developed. Whether much light has yet been cast I really have no idea.


What, ho--Euthyphro!

A recent philosophy grad asks about the Euthyphro Dilemma (so called from the Platonic dialogue), and whether it shows that religion and morality are unrelated:


Science and scientism

There’s no special reason a scientist should have anything very comprehensive or profound to say about knowledge and reality, any more than a lawyer as such is likely to have deep thoughts on the nature of social order. A working professional needs an implicit theory that puts his work in a setting that enables him to make sense of it, but the simpler the setting and the less effort it takes to understand it the better from the standpoint of his normal activities.


Pomo promo

Frequent commenter MD has posted an interesting account of the views of Jacques Lyotard, a prominent postmodernist, on knowledge in postindustrial society. It’s an interesting situation Lyotard describes, one that seems to me more hyper- than post- modern and industrial. The basic idea, I suppose, is that man is rational and social. It follows that society operates in accordance with the way knowledge is formed and conversely.


On liberal metaphysics

As my previous entry suggests, liberal and libertarian thought is oddly rigid and one-dimensional. Everything is what it is, without regard to anything else, Many things follow from that atomizing view of reality. In the ethical realm, for example, it follows that wills are either coincident or opposed, and the only way to deal with the opposition of wills is the dominance of one will over another.

Liberals and libertarians respond to that situation by attempting to establish rules that make the active conflict of wills impossible or at least illegitimate. Thus, liberal PC and “tolerance” forbid us to pursue desires that conflict with the (tolerant) desires of others. In the alternative, the property rights libertarians prefer attempt to assign all decisions to the arbitrary choice of some private party, thus preventing conflicts in which each of the opposing parties has a legitimate claim.


A celebration of the life of the mind, A.D. 2006

Last weekend I attended commencement exercises at a very prestigious Northeastern liberal arts college distinguished by its selectiveness, its commitment to social progress, and its extraordinarily beautiful and lavishly funded campus. I was struck by the unity of view of all the speakers. Here’s the gist of what I heard:

  • The “scriptural reading” opening the commencement ceremony: a quotation from Learned Hand to the effect that the spirit of liberty is necessary for liberty, and the spirit of liberty is the spirit that is never too sure it is right.
  • The student speaker at commencement, a religion studies major and amateur improv comedian: he gave a riff on the college experience as Exodus—the escape from oppression (home and local community), getting over your head in a lot of water and confusion as you cross the sea of learning, and then glorious emergence at graduation followed by attacks on all the walled cities (gated communities?) so all the walls can be destroyed.

Credo ut intelligam (snippet the second)

To think and act we have to trust things that go beyond what we can perceive or demonstrate. Our knowledge cannot be a mere summary of the evidence but must rest on something further—at a minimum, on a belief that future evidence will validate it. It is a system of coherent belief, and like any other cannot exist without tradition and thus faith. In the end, there are no skeptics. None of us can abandon faith without abandoning thought and life.

Reason and experience depend on an everyday kind of faith. We need that faith to tell us that our memories can be relied on, that the experience of others is like our own, even that things exist independently of us and our thoughts. Reason is not self-sustaining. It cannot demonstrate the conditions of its functioning: the validity of first principles, the coherence of memory, the trustworthiness of perception, or the reliability of the linguistic and cultural setting it needs to operate. To trust reason we must trust those things, and to trust experience we must trust both our perceptions and the thoughts that enable us to sort them out and come to grips with them. We understand tradition, the accumulated thought and experience of our people, much more by accepting it than by weighing and judging it from outside. We treat it as something that comes to us with an authority that goes beyond anything we can fully explain. Our confidence is based on faith that it is not random or arbitrary but revelatory, that through it the bits, pieces and glimmerings that are immediately available to us have grown into attitudes, practices, beliefs and symbols that show how things are and make truths available to us we could not attain directly.


Where we are in a nutshell

Hegelian-sounding aphorism of the day:

Leftism asserts the negation; liberalism negates the assertion.

Thus, the Left wants to destroy the heritage of the past, and so assert that the past must be negated. Liberals, on the other hand, simply deny that the heritage of the past should be asserted. (If you want an example, liberal anti-anti-communism is an obvious one.)


More noodling about evolution

I recently touched on the ambiguity of “random variation” as one of the basic principles of evolution. The word “random” appears to be something of a placeholder. From the point of view of any science, it seems that random events are simply events the science doesn’t try to explain that follow a normal distribution or some such so the science can state laws by reference to their probabilities. A criminologist, for example, might have theories about the incidence and causes of crime and be able to show various correlations, but he would treat many features of actual criminal activity, whether there were 4 murders last week and 5 this week or the reverse, as simply random. He wouldn’t be impressed if you told him that murder is intentional and so not random, because his science does not deal with specific intentions of particular criminals. Nor should the rest of us be impressed if a murderer says it’s unfair to hold him responsible for what a criminologist would call a very small random fluctuation in the crime statistics.


Amateur noodling about evolution

I’ve never put much effort into sorting out the dispute over evolution and intelligent design, partly because it would take too much work and partly because I really don’t understand why, rationally speaking, there’s such an issue.


Evolution flap

I don’t really understand the to-do between Cardinal Schönborn and his critics over evolution. [If you look lower down on the linked page you’ll find his original NYT op-ed piece, together with the paper’s commentary.]

As I understand the Cardinal’s and Church’s point (I think His Eminence presented it in an overly partisan and combative way) he’s denying that random variation and natural selection fully explain why we have just these species with just these characteristics rather than other species with other characteristics. The considerations that lead him to believe God exists and does particular things also lead him to believe that among the things God has done through particular action is to bring about human life with its special qualities (e.g., the capacity for theoretical knowledge and for moral thought and action). Accordingly, the most reasonable total explanation for life in the form it has specifically taken, he believes, would include the proposition that God brought it about and it didn’t happen just by chance. If part of that explanation does not constitute a scientific theory, then that just shows that modern natural science is not the total explanation for everything. But what’s so shocking about that?


Expertise as the mirror of experts

A problem with expertise as now understood is that it makes standards of objective rigor substitute for common sense, and it can’t nail down enough things to deal with the world or even most practical situations in a way that comes up to those standards. The result is that what’s proposed for our belief are presumptions based on the needs of expertise as a project rather than either rigorous knowledge or common sense:

  • The expert view of traditional standards and customs, sexual distinctions say, is that they’re irrational and unjust. That’s just another way of complaining that they pretend to authority even though they’re not put together by experts in accordance with professional standards. From the expert standpoint their justification becomes invisible because it’s based on other principles, so when they’re questioned it turns out there’s no acceptable argument for them.

A philosophickal excursion

A correspondent wrote to ask whether I could explain concisely Kant’s influence on European thought. The short answer, of course, was “no.” Still, it’s good mental exercise to give a 25-words-or-less response to an impossibly complicated question that demands more knowledge than you’ll ever have. If nothing else, it helps clarify and order your thought. And besides, I’ve been complaining a lot about Descartes lately so why not vary things? So here, more or less, is my reply:

  • Kant says you can’t know things in themselves, so the objects of our knowledge—that is to say, the world of our experience—are largely constructed by the human mind. Kant of course thought that happened through the application of particular specifiable categories of thought (like time, space and causality) to sense experience. We receive an unorganized manifold of sensory experience and the categories of our minds organize it and turn it into objects in space and time.

Some thoughts on culpability

Here is the short essay I contributed to Nikos Salingaros’ book Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction. They edited it a bit in the final version. The book is a recommended read, although I’m admittedly not neutral, and if you don’t like what I have to say in English you can also buy it in German:


Ponderings on experts and knowledge

The vast resources devoted to research and education or at least schooling today seem to ensure that we’re in a position to carry on everything intelligently. That turns out not to be so. We can’t grasp the world as a whole in thought, and the assumption that we can do so through expertise divorces our thought from the realities of our situation and keeps us from grasping as much as we otherwise could.

Part of the problem with expertise is mechanization. Thought requires a certain lightness of touch. It steps back from categories, at least on occasion, and asks if they need be taken quite seriously. It questions what a particular study has to do with the world, and what’s known from other sources. It makes use of everything available to the knower, including things that can’t be articulated. That’s the way perspective and common sense creep in. The scale and bureaucratic organization of expert thought make those things much harder to do. Each sticks to his specialty and obeys its standards, providing a brick or two for the tower of knowledge, but the design of the tower can’t be made an expert specialty so it’s left to chance or the collective interests or prejudices of expert investigators as a class.


Book notes: Rene Guenon

I just finished reading Rene Guenon’s The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times. It’s an interesting display, by the French Traditionalist metaphysician (and mathematician), of what can be done through systematic application of simple concepts.


Book notes: Ride the Tiger

Not a book everyone would find useful or interesting, but I’m getting something out of it: Ride the Tiger, by Julius Evola.

The author calls the book “a survival manual for the aristocrats of the soul,” although in concrete fact I’m not sure there is such a thing in his sense. Still, it’s hard to think about things without referring to ideal forms, and his qualities as a writer—clear, to the point, unpretentious—may reflect the circumstance that he actually was an aristocrat (as it happened, a Sicilian baron).


Fact and value

In today’s world it’s natural for there to be a great many accepted turns of thought that encode liberalism and modernity. An example is the “fact/value distinction.” That distinction involves the belief that two quite different sorts of things are involved in the way things are for us: facts, neutral statements about a world that’s just there, and values, human attitudes based on our projects and preferences.

Given the distinction, it’s natural to conclude that the two are radically separate and independent, so that neither can imply the other. Facts don’t determine how we evaluate them, and values—our attitudes and desires—don’t determine what the facts are. To most educated people today all that seems obvious and basic to rational thought.


The nature and radicalism of modernity

From the time of Bacon and Descartes, modernity has aimed at simple powerful principles that can be fully grasped, made completely evident, and used for comprehensive control of phenomena. As a result:

  1. To a degree unusual in a tendency of thought, let alone a historical period, modernity can be characterized specifically and its intrinsic tendencies determined.
  2. Those tendencies include extreme radicalism.

We are accustomed to think of modernity as normal. There can, however, be nothing normal about an outlook that like modernity rejects the very notion of nor



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