Odds and Ends

Dr. Boli slays me.

– Marriage is like being the only two people in on a joke. And it’s a pretty good joke.

– My 15 year old daughter has, without warning, turned into a total bookworm. That odd duck folks like her mom and dad would be bookworms is no surprise, but our daughter is naturally charming, has tons of friends and is, of course, ravishingly beautiful in that 15 year old way. But she spends hours every day reading.

– Our 17 year old son dreams big – literally. He got it in his head that it would totally cool to build a ‘life size’ Golem from the video game Minecraft. Minecraft is a low-rez retro game where you build things and dig mines and raise sheep and I don’t what else – and it has this character of Golem which, translated in real life, would be a 9′ tall set of boxes configured to look like a menacing giant. So, via the miracle of  plywood and cordless electric hand tools, we are building one. Next issue: what does one do with a heavy, tippy  9′ tall set of plywood boxes once you’re done blowing the minds of a bunch of gamers? Stay tuned…

– The illustrious Mike Flynn posts about non-argument for the non-existence of God. It is so utterly refreshing to hear anyone even try to make a rational argument that I almost want to give the one guy who tries a manly hug.

– Speaking of arguments, I’ve written before about The Galileo Affair, this great article that ran in Scientific American decades ago on Galileo.  A kind commentator on First Thoughts  was able to point me to an online .pdf  of this essay which has since been removed.  In this essay, semi-famous astronomer Owen Gingerich gives a detailed and balanced account of what went down with Galileo, complete with – imagine! – references to and reproductions of source documents! It’s like he’s giving you the materials to make up your own mind. How insouciantly subversive.

A key step in his analysis is the classic syllogism, and the role it played in Galileo’s troubles. Galileo’s argument boils down to:

1. If the heliocentric model is true, Venus will show phases;

2. Venus shows phases;

3. Therefore, the heliocentric model is true.

Oops. Unlike today, where poor unfortunates fling claims and accusations against God in the name of Reason without even a hint that what they are doing is not remotely making rational arguments, the Renaissance was full of thousands upon thousands of people trained in classic logic and reason in the medieval universities that dotted the landscape from Oxford to Prague to Rome. These logicians were quick to spot the error: it is a condition of heliocentrism that Venus show phases, but Venus showing phases is not sufficient to prove heliocentrism – Venus could show phases for some other reason – say, that Brahe’s model was correct. In other words:

1. All men are mortal;

2. Socrates is mortal;

3. Socrates *might* be a man.

Correct reasoning would be:

1. If heliocentric model is true, Venus will show phases;

2. The heliocentric model is true;

3. Therefore, Venus will show phases.

Galileo assumes that which is to be proven, and then sets up an erroneous syllogism to prove it. That’s a no-no that thousands of educated people – say, the Romans who gave Galileo a bad time – would have spotted instantly.

There’s way more to the story than just this, and plenty of blame can be rightly thrown at the way the Church handled it, BUT: the problem wasn’t that Galileo was smart and the Church was stupid.

Lemurs and Science!

Let’s get back to the serious business of making fun of Science! headlines:

Are these dwarf lemurs the key to long-distance space travel?

No. Unless they have developed warp drive out in the jungles of Madagascar somewhere (and we all know it’s penguins that do that sort of stuff) it bloody unlikely that lemurs are the key to long distance space travel.

However, they are So. Darn. Cute. Look:

Assuming of course that you take your cute with ’50s bulgy SciFi alien death eyes.

Nope, turns out that, more important than facility with delusional hyper-drive pseudo-science, these lemurs can – ready for it? – sleep real good. Hibernate, even. And, they are primates! That means they’re just like us, except shorter, fuzzier and with those creepy death eyes. So, it should be EASY, CHILD’S PLAY to:

1. modify humans so that they can hibernate – genetic engineering, brain surgery, mind melds, whatever, don’t be a pedant;

2. extend that food-and-potty-break-free hibernation for years on end, instead of just a few months – hey, we’ve already cracked open the skull in step 1, how hard can this be?;

3. create massive interstellar spacecraft within which our newly-enhanced super-sleepers can crash – oops, poor choice of words, there – can *slumber* while meandering their way to Alpha Centari over the course of a couple decades or more.  Solar sails! Nuclear powered asteroid with vaporized rock drive! LOTS of rocket fuel! SOMETHING will work!

But lemur hibernation – that’s *the* key to long distance space travel.

But they are cute. Nightmareishly cute:


Today’s Thought on Schooling: Happiness

(Salvaged from a long post on a delicate subject that will never see the light of day):

One weird feature of the modern world is the definition of happiness. It’s not so much Aquinas’s definition that has been rejected – happiness is the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue – it’s that we’ve replaced his definition of virtue with Callicles’s: the power to reward your friends, punish your enemies and indulge your every desire.

in fact, I think this thought right here might be the most indisputably true thing I’ve ever thought about the times we live in. (Yeah me.) Happiness is what happens when we get even, make people like us, and get to do whatever we want.

There are no doubt roles for all of us in this tragedy – for it is a tragedy, perhaps even the primordial tragedy, to mistake what happiness is – for all sorts of people and institutions, but let’s look at the role of education. Along with mentally and socially crippling us, modern education has also succeeded marvelously in ‘dumbing down’ our appreciation of happiness. I’ve been fortunate enough to know a number of big, happy families, and, in fact belong to one (through no merit of my own, I hasten to add). There is a  level of joy present in them that far exceeds what most people I know ever experience. In fact, it’s different in kind, not just degree – to be a part of something joyful, to have people to love who love you back, and to know that your belonging is not contingent on anything other than you being you – that’s a life-creating experience of another kind entirely. Yet the image of happiness that is most held up in schools is the idol of self-fulfillment. You will be happy, we are told in a million ways, when you get what is yours and nobody dares contradict your completely self-determined self.

These two images of happiness – the beloved and loving member of a family versus the Nietzschean self-willed uber-human – are not just mutually exclusive, they are opposites, in the precise sense that the first model is a reflection of Heaven, while the second is a reflection of Hell.

(Aside: I don’t think it needs to be noted that of course some families are miserable, and some loners are tolerably happy. But I’ve been wrong before. This does not change the fact that that the greatest natural happiness a man can have on this world is to be part of a loving family.)

There’s a memorable passage in Lewis’ Great Divorce where he argues in Hell with, I think, a bishop, who patiently explains to Lewis’ protagonist that while Heaven (meaning the Hell he’s chosen to live in) is perhaps not what they expected, it is nonetheless to be appreciated for what it is – and it is just fine. The bishop finds it better to redefine the misery he is living in as happiness, than to face the pain of recognizing his own unhappiness.  I see this every day, unfortunately. The amount of violence perpetrated in the cavalier destruction of families is less mind-boggling than the lies told to defend that violence. The majority of the families I know are ‘broken’ or ‘blended’ or both at the same time. In each case, the children are made to accept some lie about why the adults inflicted this misery upon them. The children act up, and get to be the ‘identified patient’ – their violence or lies or drug use or other anti-social behaviors are the problem, not the fact that Dad (when there even is a dad) has fled, and only talks to mom in order to scream and curse at her, or, perhaps even more insidiously evil, when mom and dad can usually pretend to be pals, the kind of pals who ended up sacrificing their children on the altar of their own self-fulfillment.

Sure, often the parents are struggling mightily to be good and to love their children, and often the children make enough peace with the situation to at least function day to day. They are to be commended for this, and, more importantly, we who have been blessed with family are to love them and support them as fellow fallen people no worse than we are – because they really, truly are not worse than we are. But while I’ve heard of  people who have truly faced the violence and lies and tried to deal with their aftermath, I’ve yet to any personally. Instead, parents will act shocked if you offer, however gently, the idea that maybe little Johnny is acting up because it’s hard to live just with a stressed out mom and her current boyfriend while dad doesn’t ever want to see you. Nope, that’s not it – it must be too much refined sugar. Or ADHD. Or too many video games. Something else, in any event.

Why We Should Care If Aristotle Has Been Disproven or Not

Getting ahead of myself, perhaps, in writing about whether or not Aristotle has been disporoven, when it’s possible – probable, even – that almost nobody cares.

Well, you should care. If you like science and technology, you should care. If you love truth, you should care. If you understand anything at all, you should care. So, let’s set the historical stage:

Prior to the early Greek philosophers, there’s no evidence that anyone anywhere believed that the world – physical, intellectual, moral, artistic and political – was understandable in any sort of systematic way. Some, most notably the Israelites, developed a detailed and objective moral code and theology – no small thing, to be sure. And human beings everywhere have made day-to-day technological advances. But you won’t find anybody laying out a well-thought-out approach to understanding the world around us until the Classical Greeks.

There’s a good reason for this: as foreign as it sounds to modern ears, nobody believed the world was such a thing as could be understood. In all the literature I’ve ever read from any culture (I’m no scholarly genius by any stretch, but I am pretty well read) in all cultures except those descended from Aristotle’s thought, there’s constant recourse to the arbitrary, petty or otherwise  incomprehensible acts of the gods or chance as the cause of Things.

We could digress at Russian novel length here on the confluence of factors that came together in Attica over the course of a thousand years to set the stage for a Plato, an Aristotle and a Thucydides. Suffice it to say that, in the fullness of time,  Greeks who loved their city, who committed to memory and wept at their poetry, who saw no limit to their arts that study and skill could not transcend, and whose hubris likewise knew no bound – they came up with the crazy idea that the world was understandable. The undisputed apex of this belief is Aristotle, who in one of the top two intellectual peaks of all time, systematically laid out his methods in a series of books. He represents the sum and apex of centuries of Greek thought.

Socrates was willing to say that the poets – the core curriculum of Greek education – lied about the gods. He said this because his reason told him that the actions and attitudes of the gods on display in Homer and the playwrights was contrary to divine nature. So: Socrates laid down the idea that the gods were in some ways at least understandable by reason.

At the same time, Socrates largely eliminated what we might call Revelation – what the gods chose to tell us about themselves. Since the poets could not be trusted, and the meanings of the oracles were shrouded, we could only say with any confidence about the gods what our reason revealed.  Effectively, Socrates had constrained the gods as explanations. While it was never wrong to attribute the cause of events to the work of the gods,  as properly and reasonably understood, it was also clear that this was not the end of thinking about things, but rather the beginning, as even the gods have natures, as the Greeks understood nature.

Aristotle takes up the challenge. Everything is subject to review and thought. Even God could be thought about and reasoned over. All the works of nature and man could be examined, using the skeptical scalpel  of logic, and checked against observation. Knowledge of that world could thus be gained.*

And Man is up to the task. The world was not arbitrary and unknowable in its essence, but – reason revealed – reflected the order and reason present in the Unmoved Mover.  Our natures as intelligent beings likewise reflect this order, enabling us, however imperfectly, to understand and know the world.

So, we can and do get push back on the conclusion that a very particular God – the Unmoved Mover is hardly what the Jews and Christians and even the Greeks themselves thought a god would be like – is required for human beings to have any sort of knowledge of anything. So, one would not be surprised to find schools of thought which reject the specific arguments about the necessity of a God at the end of the Physics, but are OK with everything else. But that’s not what seems to have happened, unless one is to take Kant to be that philosopher – a bit of a stretch. Kant loves, loves, loves Aristotle’s logic, but starts with Descartes’ radical doubt (and fudges it, as all who start there do) rather than Aristotle’s more common sense world of form and matter.  That’s not where he’s going.

Instead, all philosophy since 1600 that isn’t expressly Aristotelian at its roots seems hell-bent on getting away from Aristotle. The point of these last few little essays is to show that, while the likes of Descartes, Hume, and Hegel would like to disprove Aristotle’s whole world view, they don’t actually do it. What they do is set it aside.  What they do is embrace nonsense – non-sense both in terms of rejecting sensation and in terms of not making sense.**

Why this animosity toward Aristotle? Couple reasons:

Aristotle got drafted by the Church. Once the West stopped being constantly overrun by barbarian invaders, the Church settled down to founding universities and inventing modern science. From about 1200 to about 1500, Aristotle was deployed – baptized, the joke goes – in defense of the Church’s thinking, her philosophy and theology, most ably by St. Thomas.

Upon the occasion of the Protestant Reformation, everything associated with the Church’s defense of her teachings was tainted in certain influential circles. To read Thomas is to experience, in a way, Aristotle defending Mother Church. Thomas’s massive work towers in every sense above all the works of all the Reformers, like a Gothic Cathedral towers over a lean-to.  There was simply no chance thinkers like Luther and Calvin were going to make an dent in Thomas. So, the sought to belittle and dismiss him.

If you want to bring down a massive edifice, as all siege engineers know, attack the foundation.

But if you are not Catholic, should you care? Yes! Because while Protestant theology and the philosophers who spring from it might trudge along without Aristotle, modern science and technology can’t! As modern science more and more pretends it doesn’t need Aristotle, it more and more becomes a slave to politics and activism. On this blog, and on other blogs in my blogroll, a recurring theme is battling the forces of zealous partisans and fiery-eyed activists pretending to do science to promote their goals.

The knight in shining armor who can slay the dragon Science! (meaning here pseudo-science) is none other than Aristotle, with his cool logic, keen insight and insistence that we start with ‘what is most knowable to us, and proceed to what is most knowable by nature.’ Getting close to Aristotle is getting close to real science. Real science is close to truth. And Truth is God.

* Aristotle is routinely faulted for what he didn’t invent – scientific tools such as clocks and scales – rather than credited with what he formulated and perfected – the idea that the world is knowable to any extent by us puny humans. So, for example,  he noticed feathers falling slower than rocks, and didn’t find the issue all that compelling, and so just went with the simple observation. Now days, we’d say that’s wrong. We have 2000 years of practice and refinement Aristotle didn’t have.

** Hegel is most explicit in rejecting Aristotle’s logic, especially the fundamental Law of Non-contradiction. Hegel, by his own pronouncement, is illogical and contradictory – if that isn’t nonsensical, what is?