Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Purpose

Jim Ryan’s Philosoblog is one of my favorite sites. Jim’s focus is on American political philosophy and I usually agree with, and always pay attention to, anything he has to say. This past week he wrote this:
Some bloggers were talking about Hegel today. All his nonsense about living for some vast historical scheme - bah! We're living in nothing more than a sea of rock, space and fire, to which nothing matters. We may have a historical scheme if we want, or we may do otherwise, instead. There is not more rationality in a history than in a person. History is not a mind or person. We alone matter. While there is an exhilaration in living a very good life that is something akin to living for something beyond oneself, it's nothing more than the feeling of being very glad to exist. And maybe also partaking of a great historical culture is very good. But there is no scheme.
First, since I have never formally studied philosophy, I have to admit that I am ignorant of what Hegel had to say. However, I do know a bit about Bertrand Russell and immediately thought of his universe in ruins when reading Jim’s words. I know that Jim is strictly a materialist in that he believes in nothing beyond matter. Mind and meaning all follow from that. It seems to me that to say that there is no historical scheme is to say that there is no ultimate meaning and to say that “history is not a mind or person” is to deny any purpose behind the emergence of man. It just happened that way.

So far, so good, I suppose, but to say that “we alone matter” doesn’t quite seem right. More like “I alone matter.” And only to myself. And of course, the whole idea of a unified "self" is just a handy type of self-delusion. And of course, the whole idea of "self"-delusion is only....well, you get the picture. It's safe to say, though, that others are no more than props in our existence, so of course, without purpose or intent, the whole of history is just a trajectory, not really a journey.

What caught my attention was the underlying discussion of purpose and that got me to thinking about how absolutely critical it is, to a materialist worldview as manifested in darwinism, that it not exist. Bertvan asserts that purpose is possible without a purposeful god, but I can’t pretend I really comprehend that. But here’s something I do know. Introducing purpose, even the type outlined by bertvan below, would be like tossing a dead mouse into the darwinist punch bowl. No one would ever take another drink. Darwinism would not just be modified, updated “neo-fied” again, it would be dead. Undeniably, certifiably dead.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

I was motivated recently to do a little research and write a post on the plight of Galileo some 400 years ago. However, almost immediately I found that the increasingly essential Jonah Goldberg had already done it. What motivated me was a response on Orrin Judd’s excellent weblog from one of the “regulars” there. Whatever it was that was originally posted got turned into a religion/science debate in the Comments section. What the commenter had to say boils down to this: Over the past 25 centuries, “science” has been right about everything. Of course, all this proves is the bias of the modern. Go back in time just a tenth of that span of 25 centuries and see how much “science” had right.

This kind of thinking is usually tied in with a smear of religion (preferably Christianity) as a persecutor of the enlightened scientist. I accept no conventional wisdom without proof (or at least compelling data) and the whole Galileo episode just didn’t ring true for me. In an essay not about Galileo per se, Goldberg uses the story of Galileo’s trouble to make a point:
Some air needs to be cleared here. The myth of Galileo as a "martyr to science" — as countless writers and historians have called him — was born of the French enlightenment. "From Diderot to Brecht, the myth of Galileo the rationalist-scientist-martyr [has] dominated Western thought, and even today it shows few signs of abating," wrote Robert Nisbet in Prejudices. The first choice for hero of reason, Nisbet explains, was actually Isaac Newton. But, unfortunately for the philosophes, Newton was unacceptably pious. So they picked Galileo who, it must be noted, was intensely religious as well.

The story we all learned is that Galileo was condemned for advocating Copernicanism, which held that the Aristotelian view of the sun circling the earth was wrong. And ultimately, this much is true. But, we're also told that the moral of the story is that Christianity is an enemy of science and that science can only thrive when Christianity and other chaotic superstitions are kept safely in a Pandora's box, far from institutions of reason. And this is almost exactly and perfectly wrong.

It is simply a lie to say that Galileo and the Church were enemies. A quick review: Galileo was the pride of the Church in Tuscany and was a friend to numerous influential figures within the Church. His work was sponsored and celebrated by his close friend, Bishop Maffeo Barberini. In 1611, when Galileo's The Starry Messenger came out — which reported his discoveries with his new telescope — the Vatican college in Rome celebrated with a day of parties much like the DNC will when Sidney Blumenthal's book is released. His buddy Maffeo Barberini eventually became Pope Urban VIII and, as pontiff, eagerly authorized Galileo to write and publish Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems — the book which got Galileo into so much hot water.
Goldberg goes some detail about the intrigue of the whole episodes and then arrives here:
…I bring all of this up to make one irrefutable point: Galileo's greatest and most-enduring enemies were not the orthodox clerics of the Church, but his fellow scientists. This was not a case of a superstitious, bureaucratic Church snuffing the light of reason. It was a case of petty and jealous men trying to use the Church to kneecap a whistleblower. If Galileo's way of things won the day, a lot of people would have looked like fools and, possibly, lost their jobs. And, this had less to do with Copernicanism or heliocentricity than with the fact that Galileo represented the introduction of mathematics into the world of physics. Needless, to say, if you were a physicist who didn't know jack about math and, all of a sudden, this guy was going to make math a requirement, you'd be bummed.

This is undoubtedly how Galileo himself saw his plight… the earliest and perhaps most-enduring constraints on Galileo's research was his fear of ridicule and opprobrium from the scientific community. In 1597, Galileo wrote a letter to Kepler admitting that he believed Copernicus had it right, but he was afraid to admit it publicly for fear of being ridiculed by Aristotelian scientists — not persecuted by closed-minded clerics.
When science takes on the role of religion, as it inevitably does – and not just in our age – the scientist can be elevated to something of a diety. They are after all, human beings, with human emotions, ambitions, feelings, and foibles. Nobody wants to look like a fool, lose status and possibly a livelihood because the star to which you have hitched your wagon fizzles.