Science!

Science was my first love. Was fortunate enough to go to school in a time and place where, as long as you were keeping up and weren’t distracting other students, the teachers were willing to leave you alone. Got to spend grades 5 – 8 basically reading stuff while making a very occasional and token contribution in class.We had a pretty decent little library for a small working-class Catholic school – at least, it kept me happy for a couple years. The public library was only a couple blocks from school, so, when I was ready, I ‘graduated’ to it.

Worked my way through the Time-Life science series first. In the one on electromagnetism, there were instructions on how to make a working electric motor out of paperclips, tacks and wire. I made one for the science fair – it worked great, but was very fragile. I failed to make sure that the teachers saw that it worked when I dropped it off, because, by the time the show came around, it didn’t – don’t know why, something was out of alignment or the batteries died, who knows. It didn’t do well, which irritated me, because *I* thought it was cool, and way fancier than most of the stuff the other 10 year olds were making, but to the judges it must have looked like a pile of wires.

I relate this story only to give some idea of why, despite my great interest in science, I never studied it formally outside of a few classes in high school and college – I lack something, call it the experimental knack. In college, I once caused the evacuation of the science lab by failing to consider that, once I’d reduced a liquid to powder in a crucible over a Bunsen burner, it would be a good idea to let it cool before titrating some nasty chemicals into it. Sigh.

But the theory – man, I was all over it. Unlike many famous scientists today, I understood instinctively and from a very young age that there were things science could tell you and things science could not (which, I think, is why I ended up studying philosophy).

So, for the last 35+ years, I’ve been very suspicious of anybody who figuratively (and sometimes literally) stands up at the podium, looks down his nose, and pronounces that science has shown this or that. Similarly, the phrase ‘scientific consensus’ sets off all kinds of alarms – I’d like someone to point out to me some great scientist, someone whose contributions reverberate around the world and fundamentally affect what people do and think – Newton, Einstein, Planck, that level of scientist – saying ‘the scientific consensus’ somehow settled something. I’d think, rather, that claim would merit a sneer or a laugh, for one very good reason – these are the very guys who made their marks by *upsetting* the consensus of their day.That’s often how science works.

Experiment, data, falsifiable theory – that’s science. Browbeating questioners with claims that the *real* scientists all agree is not, especially when the argument is fundamentally circular: real scientists are the ones who agree.

The point isn’t that claims of ‘consensus’ prove any wrong, but rather that they prove nothing at all. There’s a scientific consensus, for example, that water boils at 100c at sea level and under normal pressure. It’s a consensus *because* anybody so inclined can check it out for themselves. The experimental data backs it up.

In an earlier post, I discussed how people with an agenda, if they are at all smart, are always on the lookout for their Guy Fawkes – that guy on the other side who behaves so egregiously that he creates sympathy. “See! See!”, you can claim, “our opponents are dangerous lunatics!” In Guy Fawkes’s case, he stands in for all the perfectly sane and reasonable people willing to die for the belief that the Crown of England was not and could not truly be the head of the Church in England. When admired judges, bishops and young mothers are willing to die for this belief, it makes the other side look bad – and so, in the nick of time, mad bomber Fawkes appears, to supply the kind of opponent the Crown needed.

In the same way, Andrew Wakefield is useful – see, he’s a fraud! See the kind of people who oppose the scientific consensus! And look at all the gullible people who follow him!  And, it’s all true – Wakefield is a fraud, and millions of gullible people still follow him. And Fawkes really did want to blow up Parliament. But what none of this proves is that those who oppose a scientific consensus are, by that fact alone, shown to be frauds or nuts. Only the data can do that.

What pains me is not when some nut or suffering parent is wrong, but when scientists who should know better start playing the ‘we know better’ card. So often, it’s a guy like Wakefield, who’s in it for the money, or Sagan, who was in it for the fame, who use science as a club to beat us lesser mortals into submission.

And, here’s the kicker: it has always been thus. The history of science is full of grandstanding self-promoters (Galileo, for on  prominent example), petty back-stabers (Newton) and frauds (too many to list – how about Freud and Kellogg?).

The data is sacred. Bad data yields bad science. Theories only mean anything when based on good data. Problems with the data result in problems with the theory. And the frequency of saints among scientists is no greater than among financial advisers.

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Unconditional Love and Responsibility

It seems sometimes that people,  typically of a conservative-ish bent, believe that unconditional love is the same thing as permissiveness. If parents focus on making sure their children know that they are loved unconditionally, so the thinking seems to go, they’ll spoil them rotten, the kids won’t be motivated, and will expect everything to be handed to them.

On the contrary, there’s no conflict between having a solid conviction that you are loved and embracing the sacrifices and suffering of life. In fact, the lives of the saints and of Jesus show that those two things – a profound sense of being loved and embrace of a self-giving life – are inseparable.  True, a person can sacrifice out of a sense of unworthiness – but then, the question is: what kind of sacrifice is it if you judge yourself worthless? It is to true sacrifice as orange is to gold.

Instead, we parents should strive to integrate our love of our children with the sacrifices we make both for them and for others, so that our children will learn that the source of our love for them and the source of our willingness to sacrifice are One. And that that one is also the source of our joy.

Yet More on Science

Science has shown that the most misused phrase in the English language is:  Science has shown.

– if the proposition has ‘ought’ in it, science remains silent. All arguments about how morality evolved and can therefore be explained mechanistically are malicious word games. At best, evolutionary biology explains what has happened, not what you or anyone else ought to do.

– if the proposition has metaphysics in it, science is silent. Metaphysics is not a bad word, despite the best efforts of number of scientists to prove, metaphysically, that metaphysics doesn’t exist, or, if it does exist, isn’t needed. Metaphysics is just that class of things that are required for *anything* to be true.  To even state that no metaphysics are required is to – ready? – make a metaphysical statement.

Just using these two handy rules alone, you can properly dismiss as hokum any assertion that ‘science has shown’:

– that people are altruistic because evolution made them that way;

– that God doesn’t exist;

– that people are animals, and nothing more. (people are mammals = scientific observation; that people are no different than cows or slugs = huge metaphysical leap, plus abuse of logic and observation)

– that consciousness is an emergent property of matter. Really? How would one observe or measure that?

– that there is no free will, since everything can be explained mechanistically.

for starters.

Honor Thy Father and Mother

“I know they did the best they could.”

Really? I tend to grit my teeth whenever I hear someone – often a Catholic or Christian – say words to this effect. It’s very unlikely our parents did the best they could, just as it is very unlikely *we* are doing the best we can. Isn’t that what sin is all about?

What I’m hearing is a child making excuses. Often, it seems to us that the only way we can live with what our parents did to us is to ‘honor’ them by excusing them. Note that I’m not suggesting that we err in the opposite direction of blaming everything on our parent’s failures, but that it is also wrong to simply dismiss everything by saying it was the best they could do.

The most honorable attitude towards parents is one of generous honesty: assume good intentions wherever possible, but don’t pretend that bad things were good or acceptable.

One must first honor Our Father by honoring the truth.

Abortion

Two points, one more personal, one more simply logical:

1. It would more true to say that I’m Catholic because of my reaction to abortion than to say that I oppose abortion because I’m Catholic. In 1973, when Roe v Wade came down, I was attending a Catholic high school. Recall also that, in 1973, that utter poser and manifest intellectual fraud Paul Ehrlich’s star was rising – his proposition that we’re all doomed, DOOMED!, by population growth was accepted wisdom, even in most Catholic circles. The result was and is that most Catholic families now days have maybe 2, or, if they’re wild and crazy, even *three* kids, tops.  This was already true in 1973. More than 2 kids = evil evil bad bad.

I’m the 7th of 9 children.

So, my 14 year old mind put 2 and 2 together with admirable alacrity: I’m NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE. My very existence is a MISTAKE and an affront to RIGHT REASON.

And Roe v Wade was intended to provide the mechanism to make sure people like me were nipped, as it were, in the bud.

It was also clear that the other arguments were smoke screens. People – completely innocent people who were just trying to exercise their inalienable right to cross the street –  get hit by cars all the time – yet, somehow, that fact does not  result in pedestrians having the right to preemptively bazooka oncoming traffic. Similarly, we are not, in general, under either legal or cultural rubrics, granted cart blanc to solve our problems by acting violently towards others, however unfair it may that we suffer.

“Life is pain, you Highness – anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.” Or, more precisely, life isn’t fair. Good and bad things happen to us that we don’t deserve. To live well means to humbly accept the good and heroically and cheerfully endure the bad. Every age prior to this one, pagan and Christian, agreed. How could they disagree and have their eyes open?

The proponents of abortion here apply a vicious end-around: they assert, without any evidence other than their fevered wish for it to be so, that pointing out that 1) bad things happen; 2) getting pregnant can appear as a bad thing; but 3) that even though a woman may be put into a very unhappy set of circumstances by a pregnancy she wishes she didn’t have, that that fact alone does not result in a right to kill the child – that, asserting these things is equal to being heartless to the women involved, or, more viciously, tantamount to the brutish bigotry of sexism. Not only does that not follow, but is historically and currently the exact opposite of the truth: the same people most vehemently opposed to abortion are the people most strongly and vocally in support of providing care to both the mother and child.

But the filter has been set up, so this fact cannot be seen.

During most of my college career, I wasn’t a practicing Catholic, and lived a pretty dissolute life – however, a no point did my conviction that abortion was wrong waiver. Seeing the Church, alone, take the stand that abortion was an evil that must be opposed at every step – well, that helped convince me to come back.

2. Traditionally, if a person claimed to be Napoleon, we’d think, unless he happened to be leading the French legions in the early 19th century, that he was insane. The vehemence of his conviction didn’t really figure into it. We sane people hang our hats on the idea called Objective Reality – that the world isn’t how we imagine it to be, but rather that the quality – the truth – of our opinions is measured by how well they correspond to objective reality.

This fundamental concept, which is the basis of all culture, technology, and science has been under attack for a couple centuries now, starting with the followers of Descartes. But it’s a mind game, and every honest person knows it – you can’t live with other people if you *act* as if you believe reality depends on what you think of it, no matter how energetically you argue the point. You got friends, family, a job? You’ve conceded the point. To behave otherwise is the very definition of insanity.

Yet, the belief that what the mother chooses to believe determines REALITY is the core of the pro-abortion argument. The unborn baby is a baby, if the mother so chooses, and a lump of tissue, if she chooses.

A rational mind should recoil at and reject such manifest nonsense. This is like arguing that 2 + 2 = whatever you want it to equal – if that’s true, math is impossible; if a mother gets to choose the reality of her baby, society is impossible.

Even apart from the horror of abortion, from which any human should shrink, the logic that underlies abortion should be rejected as absurd and destructive.

Abortion is a physically painful topic to me – thinking about it keeps me awake at night and puts my stomach in knots. On a physical, rational, societal and personal level, abortion is insane.

Please, Lord, hold close to your heart all those mothers, fathers and babies, and all the people who helped them abort.  Help us care for all the mothers, fathers and children now at risk. Help us accept and embrace whatever penance and suffering that is our lot for our part in this horror. May your love envelope all of us, and heal all of us.

Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us!

Fear, and the Assessment of Risk

I took perverse delight, when my kids were little, in letting them climb as high as they wanted to on the toys at the park, when there were moms present. If I let a toddler get more than about 12″ off the ground, some panicky woman would be sure that, despite the cushioning layer of wood chips and despite the success of the human race in surviving lo these many millennia, I was risking that child’s life, and was an evil, bad parent.

Since we have multiple kids, my usual response, if someone brought it up, was: ‘It’s OK – we have spares’ – intending to cement my rep as a monster.

(Side note: once, our 2nd, a daughter, grabbed a snow disk thing and shot down a hill far beyond her level of competence and ended up spiraling off into a wood at high speed – miraculously missing all the tree, and coming out mere scared and scraped up. At that point, I stopped with the ‘spares’ joke – no, we don’t have any spares. Please, God, forget I even ever said that in jest!)

We have a trampoline. We just tell the kids to be careful, and let them have at it. Other than a few bangs and bruises, we’re about 8 years in without a serious injury. My kids – imagine – climb trees, often to see just how high up they can get. As soon as they are big enough to control them – around 10 or 12 – I let them use the cordless power tools, including the saw.

Add this to the whole family bed, no mandatory classes style school, and general disdain for what the world counts as ‘achievement’, and, clearly, I’ve RUINED our kids.

Except for the part where they are all happy, healthy, intellectually active and doing very well at whatever it is that interests them – including, in the case of the 17 and 19 year olds, college.

We buckle seat belts. We wear bike helmets. We only eat mushrooms obtained from reputable commercial sources. But – 6 kids on the trampoline? 6 year old 20′ up in a tree? 12 year old cutting a 2X4 with a cordless saw (after instruction and supervision by Dad)? Sure, we do that, too.

I worry about my kids’ souls, and worry about raising competent kids who are not afraid of their own shadows. But shark attack level risks? Not so much.

“Be not afraid” after all.