Explaining Everything

Friday, 10-31-2014

No doubt the mechanism of natural selection can explain some things, such as why certain skin colors are more prevalent in climates in which they are adaptive.  But to suppose that natural selection can explain everything about human nature is absurd.  On this hypothesis, the only genes that are consistently passed on are the ones for traits that help us to pass on our genes.  Any genes which don’t should eventually disappear from the genome.  But is it really true that all human traits are adaptive in this sense?

It might be adaptive to enjoy exploring my environment, because I will be more likely to know where to find things like food.  But there is no adaptive value in seeking to know the meaning of life; how would it contribute to reproductive success to look for something which, on the natural selection hypothesis, isn’t even there to be found?  It might be adaptive to prefer rhythmic over arhythmic sounds, because rhythmic ones resemble Mama’s heartbeat.  But there is no adaptive value in being the sort of creature who is awed, humbled, and transported by the music of J.S. Bach.

I dare you to tell me the adaptive value of believing in God.  One eminent sociobiologist claims that we have genes for believing in God because belief in God unites the social group.  Hasn’t anyone ever told him that differing beliefs about God can tear apart the social group?  Besides -- why not just have genes for social unity?


The Solum Statutum Fallacy

Thursday, 10-30-2014

Both legislators and judges should consider natural law and justice, but in different ways.  Legislators should consider them in order to frame the statutes; judges should consider them in order to understand the statutes.

According to some conservatives, this view is terribly wrong because it invites judicial activism.  They agree with the first part of the statement -- that legislators should consider natural law and justice in order to frame the statutes -- but they say judges should not consider them at all.  If judges are allowed to do so, they fear, then judges will inevitably substitute their own opinions about right and wrong for what the statutes mean.  This is much like the Reformation’s idea about how to prevent distortions of sacred text, but instead of sola scriptura, the rule is sola statutum.

Perhaps solum statutum would work if it were possible for judges not to consider anything outside of the statutes.  But it isn’t, because the statutes are not self-interpreting.  No texts are.  No matter how earnestly the interpreter defers to the meaning of their words, this meaning depends on innumerable things beyond and outside of them – yes, on things like justice.  If you get those other things wrong, you will not grasp the law either.

If I am right – if not to consider those other things is literally impossible – then if you push them out the front door, they will sneak in through the back.  But in this case, the demand not to consider them does not reduce the danger of judicial activism:  It increases it, because it is much more difficult to scrutinize considerations we pretend not to be thinking of than considerations we admit we are thinking of.

Some judges say that they are forbidden to look beyond the text of the statutes by their very oath of office.  It would be a pretty paradox if the oath did require impossibilities, but fortunately, it doesn’t.  Look it up:  They promise to administer justice and to uphold the laws.  Both duties are binding; neither may be violated; neither may be subordinated to the other.  The statutes do not take the place of justice; justice illuminates the meaning of the statutes themselves.

A highly placed federal judge once suggested to me that if construing the meaning of the statutes does require understanding the meaning of justice, then the legislature has done a bad job.  It should use clearer words which don’t carry such a moral charge.  He had a point, for one can certainly replace words which are more likely to be abused with words which are less.

But he also overstated his point, for one cannot replace words which need interpretation with words which interpret themselves; there are no such things.  Ultimately, all language points beyond itself to the real world.   If you cannot fathom the world, then you cannot fathom the language, and the just and unjust are features of the world.


Can We Predict Our Own Actions?

Wednesday, 10-29-2014

It always surprises me when social scientific colleagues express the conviction that in principle, human behavior is predictable.  They seem to make two assumptions:  First, that all human behavior is causally determined, second, that in principle, whatever is causally determined can be predicted.

But even leaving aside the question of whether all human behavior is determined, determinism does not entail predictability.  We can form reasonable expectations about many things in the future, but it would be impossible to predict human behavior with certainty even if determinism were true.  The main reason is that the very act of prediction changes the system which the scientist is trying to predict.  He may think he can predict the effects of his predictions, but this is like the dog’s belief that if only he chases fast enough, he will eventually catch up with his tail.

For example, suppose the social scientist predicts that certain people will do P.  What is to prevent them from doing the opposite of whatever he predicts, just because they are bent on refuting him?  In this case, even though their doing not-P was causally determined by his prediction that they would do P, he was unable to predict it.  Suppose he predicts that on the following day, as he is going about his ordinary activities, his research assistant will shoot him.  Isn’t it likely that he will alter his ordinary activities to keep from being shot?

If he takes his response to his prediction into account, then he must make a different prediction, and then, of course, he must have to take into account his response to that prediction.  Like the dog, he can never catch up.


Letting Schroedinger’s Cat out of the Bag

Tuesday, 10-28-2014

The wave function in quantum mechanics does not predict what state of affairs will eventuate; it only specifies the probabilities.  Any number of things might happen.  Yet the observer taking measurements does not perceive an array of different states of affairs; he perceives just one state of affairs.  Seemingly, the very act of observation does something to the system.  But the wave function of the phenomenon the observer is measuring does not describe the act of measurement itself.  So what is going on?

A number of solutions are suggested.  Some physicists have proposed that reality is one thing, but the consciousness of the observer is, so to speak, something else.  If the observer is merely human, then this sort of proposal is troubling for a lot of reasons.  For if reality is what it is because I think it, then how did I myself come to be?  And where does this leave you?

Surprisingly, Thomas Aquinas would have found such problems less disorienting than we do.  We are thinking of just two things:  Reality and human minds.  But he is thinking of three:  Physical reality, human minds, and the mind of God.  The ideas in God's mind do not have the same relationship to things that the ideas in a human mind have.

In the case of a human being, things are the measure of mind.  In other words, human concepts are not true in themselves; they are true only to the degree that they conform to how things are in reality.  But in the case of the Creator, mind is the measure of things.  That is, God's intellect really is true in itself; things are true only to the degree that they conform to His mind.  (Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q. 93, Art. 1, ad 3.)


My Brain Made Me Do It

Monday, 10-27-2014

Brain researchers have found that if a certain part of a person’s brain is electrically stimulated, he may experience a strong feeling of the presence of God.

Therefore (some writers conclude), we don’t think God is present because God is really present, but merely because our brains our brains make us feel that He is.

This is like saying that since my brain can be manipulated to make me hallucinate an imaginary cat, there is no reason to think that I ever see a real cat.


Losing Faith

Sunday, 10-26-2014

Why do so many religious students lose faith in college?  Not because they are getting smarter.  In the first place, our schools are not doing very well at making them smarter.  In the second place, the phenomenon of loss of faith is peculiar to our own universities.  There is no evidence that it was widespread in, say, medieval universities, which were much more demanding intellectually.

The prime reason it happens is that our intellectual culture is tacitly atheistic.  Don’t imagine that students are presented with compelling arguments against faith in college.  Frankly, most don’t encounter any serious arguments at all about the question of faith, either for or against – which is telling in itself.  Nevertheless a certain attitude is strongly conveyed without words.

This attitude has two main elements.  One is a widespread view that people who believe in God do so because of their upbringing, but that people who disbelieve in God do so because they have thought about the matter.  The other is a settled feeling that it doesn’t make any difference whether or not one believes in God anyway.  Students tend to live as though there were no God, and most people who live that way come to feel that even if there is one, He must be remote and uninvolved.

It’s true, of course, that those who are considered more intelligent are more likely to go to college, and that those who go to college really are less likely to take God seriously -- but not because they are more intelligent.  Rather because that is the sort of attitude college subtly encourages them to take -- and because the young people most concerned about seeming intelligent are the quickest to conform.


Is Religious Liberty an Indulgence?

Saturday, 10-25-2014

Why should free exercise of religion be defended?  Not because people can make wrongs right just by thinking that they are right, or because religious folk would like indulgence for private eccentricities, or because they would like exemptions from reasonable demands grounded in the common good.

No, free exercise is an element of the common good, grounded in our shared human nature.  As a rational being, man is ordained to know the truth, especially the truth about God; knowing the truth requires seeking it; and a certain liberty is necessary even for the search.

The common good has other elements too; religious liberty does not justify violating the natural law.  Even so, the burden of proof for regulations on religious liberty should be on the state.  Why?  Because governments make people do all sorts of things that are objectively wrong, and because even an erroneous conscience deserves some consideration -- not because it is erroneous, but because it is a conscience.

So on one hand, the claims of conscience must be exercised within the bounds of public order, but on the other hand, "public order" must be understood as the common good as viewed in the light of the natural law -- not as a synonym for whatever the government wants to do.

Any lawyers out there?  The real challenge is to figure out how to make coherent arguments along these lines within the incoherent framework of First Amendment religion clause jurisprudence.