Good News from Janet…

Hello, readers. I’ve been silent here for a couple of months and yet you’ve shown a remarkably steady interest in my postings. Thank you so very much.

I suffered a bout of illness beginning in late November. Then I submerged myself in new work on the questions we’ve pursued here: a paradigm for knowing in the disciplines that would give all the credit in the world to scientific methodology, but without disparaging or relativizing the other ways of knowing in relation to the natural sciences.

Eureka! I have found it. (I think.) It’s still based on the Greeks, but it’s more cogent and more deeply substantiated in the texts of Plato and Aristotle. Also, I’ve had incredible amounts of fun seeing what happens when I apply the “old” model for knowing to Galileo and Newton, to Descartes and Leibnitz, instead of their own rationalist model.

The old model for “how humans come to know,” the theory of the “-ike” I started to talk about in the “Wily Socrates” posts, was based, of course, in the philosophical theorizing that energized the original vision of a liberal arts education: an education in the disciplines for the formation of citizens capable of self-government.

Plato and Aristotle, as we know, developed (so brilliantly and responsibly) this theory of knowing-through-the-disciplines — that is, in my terms, the theory of the -ike — from out of that gleam in the eye of the historical Socrates: from his practice of a “dialectics” devoted to the eidos, as it appeared in area of ethics (What is “Justice,” “Friendship,” the “Good Life”?).

So, I’ve been working out of Plato’s Ion and Aristotle’s Poetics, principally, with help from Plato’s Theaetetus and the Republic and from other writings of Aristotle, to formalize their theory of the ike, but in terms that will be fresh and efficacious for us today. I’ve been using the Greek words in order to do this, attempting to (re)embue them with the formal rigor I believe they carried in the classical philosophical schools of Athens during the 4th century BCE.

The “-ike,” of course, as my readers here will know, is a reference to this original theory of knowing, the Greco-European vision that inspired education for 2000 years in the West until the rise of science in the 17th century gave birth to a new “theory of knowledge.” The term “ike” derives from the manner in which the Greeks formed disciplinary names by adding -ike to the name of the subject matter, as in poietike, musike, logike, grammatike, physike, arithmetike, and so forth. (This would eventually yeild our “poetics,” “physics,” “arithmetic,” “mathematics,” and so forth.)

The -ike suffix, in other words, indicated that a “techne” or an “episteme” was in view. (Poietike or arithmetike were short for techne poietike or techne rhetorike, but the “techne” part dropped out most of the time.) The Romans translated the Greek techne as the Latin ars, artis, and along with this, they translated the Greek episteme as scientia, thus giving us our modern “arts and sciences.”

Yet today we tend to forget or overlook, given our deeply engrained scientific outlook in the Modern West, that while Aristotle formalized an existing distinction between the technes and epistemes as the “productive” ikes and the “theoretical” ikes, nontheless he still frequently employed either word in order to refer more generally to any formalized disciplinary practice, irrespective of its subject matter and methodology. (We would view arithmetic as a scientific discipline, for example, but while Aristotle saw it as “theoretical” and hence an episteme, it was still called techne arithmetike, just as poetics was called techne poietike. This wasn’t incidental, either, but crucial to take into our account.)

By the way, Plato and Aristotles insisted upon using fluid vocabularies because they were concerned with teaching the nature of thought itself, and so, as teachers first, they inculcated the capacity to register and attend to the complicated formal levels of organization manifested by the various kinds of things. This emergence of flexibility and deftness on the part of their students was more important to them than the modern insistence on honing an exact set of technical terms.

Don’t misunderstand me. Precision was as important to them as it was to Kepler, Galileo, or Newton. And the mechanics of motion couldn’t have been developed apart from this method. But for the Greeks, the kind of precision varied according to the kind of discipline, and the precision they most desired was to be located ultimately in the development of persons capable of well-armed thinking, while 17th century thinkers valued as genuine the method that could be operated most mechanically and impersonally so as to acheive the kind of “universality” that they held to be the mark of genuine knowledge.

(This is why so many of Plato’s dialogues warn us of the ambiguities that we must all, as “neophytes,” confront and think through, if we hope to mature as thinkers, yet without showing us the path through the muddle itself. Aristotle is more generous to beginners. He is willing to set out the simplest basics in his Organon.)

Plato and Aristotle, I believe, were learning and teaching how to think dynamically, formally, and elegantly, but not mechanically. Their theory of knowing, in other words, involved the formal elegance of the ike itself, lying at a structural level deeper than the specialized methodologies of any of the individual ikes, whether they happened to be geometry, arithmetic, history, ethics, political theory, or, as in the Ion, cowherding, piloting a boat, or producing clean laundry.

It is striking that in Plato’s very early account of -ike in the Ion, he depicts Socrates as teaching the theory of techne (or episteme) itself, rather than pursuing directly an ethical eidos (the so-called Form or Idea). Like the later Theaetetus, in which “Socrates” asks “What is episteme?” the Ion is devoted in depth to the theory of ike. In it, Socrates proceeds one by one through the formal distinguishing features belonging to any and all of the ikes. (This is in the course of querying whether the rhapsode Ion, who claims an ike for epic poetry, in fact does or does not possess an ike.) Thus we are shown the significance of Socrates’ enquiries in ethics for the new philosophical way of life formalized by Plato. Both are based on an eidetic/dialectical theory of ike.
Both in Ion, and in Aristotle’s brilliant response to the question of whether there is an ike for poetry (contained in the thoughtwork of the Poetics), we see a theory of what constitutes a genuine way of knowing that is quite capable of being held up today — in the spirit of Neils Bohr’s complementarity? — as an alternative model for the arts and sciences and their role in the formation of a free citizenry.

In actuality, I do not think that the “new-old” paradigm of Greco-European knowing stands in the relationship of “complementarity” to the Enlightenment theory of knowledge — that is, to the classical theory of scientific rationalism that was developed in the 17th century, that dominated the 18th and 19th centuries in the West, and that was elaborated exhaustively throughout much of the 20th century in the tradition of Frege, Russell, and Carnap (not to mention Wittgenstein and Husserl).

Instead, I think that each of these two historical models brings out certain features of a very complex and urgent question: how do human beings genuinely come to know? And what are the consequences of genuine learning to know, in terms of the ethical, political, and spiritual good of individuals and of their communities?

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, along with 12 centuries of Christian thinkers in the medieval and Renaissance worlds, sought nothing less than human salvation through the life of the mind. (It is, after all, the mind‘s path to God for Augustine, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Dante, and the humanists of the Renaissance.) Yet none of them was the kind of intellectual snob that we moderns have been, with our elitist, patronizing, and exclusionary “theory of knowledge” and education. (They had their own snobberies and repressive elitisms, but not when it came to salvation.)

So this is the shape that my own work is now taking: following these two models that Western history offers us. The later model, established during the rise of science, was unquestionably built upon the laws of motion and gravitation, as its far-reaching Kuhnian paradigm. Galileo and Newton established this paradigm, however, by developing a new ike, one which was addressed to a newly redefined kind of thing. (It is utterly fascinating to look at the development of Newtonian mechanics through the lens of the Greek theory of ike, because it fits so remarkably well while placing its features in a fresh light.)

The first model for knowing, I believe, is best captured and represented by the account of ike elucidated by Aristotle in his Poetics. With respect to this “poetic” model, if we take it to serve as the Kuhnian paradigm for all of earlier Greco-European knowing, we must give the last word to Luce Irigary! (Over whom we have languished a good deal here, thanks to Alan Sokel.)

She deserves the nod because the essential differences between the two models turn out to resemble, at least metaphorically, the formal differences between the “mechanics of bodies in motion,” on the one hand, and “fluid dynamics,” on the other.
However, we should remember that “metaphorical” meant something quite different to Plato and Aristotle and later Greco-European thinkers than it has meant to moderns. Ability in the ikes, Aristotle remarked, shows itself in quickness with metaphor. (Contemporary physicists emphasize the creativity and invention of everyday working science. In many respects, they have modified the classical scientific paradigm already. We may all be on the threshold for a third model.)

Does the mark of real brilliance in the sciences differ fundamentally from what it is in the arts? Certainly, the heuristic methods and standards for testing differ from discipline to discipline. But something perhaps lies under them all. Something sub-stantial. the capacity to invent models deftly and fruitfully, by flexibly employing potential structural analogies and relationships, and intuiting likely symmetries. It lies in the human capacity to invent, apply, test, evaluate, modify, and abandon models, in the course of attempting to trace the elegantly formalizable dynamics of any given kind of thing.


[I don’t know how much of this current work I’ll be placing here, but I’ll be letting you know where to find it, for certain. I do intend to put more of the literary theory course here, since folks are reading it, and I’m very glad to engage in dialogue about any of this. Those exchanges last summer and fall with the physicists (and biologist) have proved invaluable to me; thank you all so much. My work will be more accurate and appealing across the disciplines because of all the repeated “checks” I’ve experienced here! And all of your “leads” and invaluable links.]

David Lindley’s “Where Does the Weirdness Go?”

For those who followed the long debate about quantum mechanics and the paradigm shift from Newtonianism to the post-Einstein world of physics that I proposed in Part 4 of my opening lit theory lecture, I’d like to recommend David Lindley’s book on QM and on the emergence of “decoherence” as the current standard interpretation. (That discussion follows Part 4 under Pages.)

Lindley seems (to me) to line up precisely with what Gavin tried to explain to us more recently, about why decoherence is “in” and David Bohm’s hidden variables theory is “out.” He explains the history of QM and the Copenhagen interpretation in its original form (Niels Bohr) and in its current form, updated with decoherence. I now understand why working physicists don’t expect a deeper underlying theory to emerge here to account for the seeming anomalies of QM. I see how and why these QM problems aren’t like the late 19th-century “anomalies” that led to Planck’s constant and a whole new theory (special relativity).  So this helps me with Roger Penrose too.

I will try to post some excerpts here, because, as Gavin struggled valiantly to do, Lindley responds to the more philosophical questions we all have about QM and in the process manages to account for the working QM physicist’s disquiet with the way that we “innumerate humanists” seem to be running away with QM implications in half-baked ways….

Lindley is not argumentative or polemical and his accounts are amazingly readable. He manages to be explanatory on a high level in a manner graspable by the reader who is not up to all of the intricate mathematics. Most of all, he fills in for us with perspectives and outlooks that speak to the inevitable philosophical questions that humanists and theists will have.

For instance, I now understand that Niels Bohr did seem to suggest a certain mysticism about QM “measurement” (as I thought I had learned 15 years ago) but that it is no longer applicable today, because quantum decoherence expands “measurement” to being a constant natural process in the physical world.

I think everyone should read this book (instead of those Stanford Philosophical articles so dissed by Gavin!) Thanks to Jennifer for this recommendation!

It’s Time for “Silence — by Shusaku Endo

[Spoiler alert. Finish the novel before you begin this discussion. You don’t want to know what’s going to happen. Some background is here. ]

I finished reading the novel Silence by the great Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo about two weeks ago and I was overwhelmed. It is so beautiful and so profoundly disturbing. To me, these are the marks of a deep grace, because such grace is the kind that always overturns things and makes us question what we thought we knew before….

Did I really read this novel years ago? It is all so fresh and new. The climactic moment in which Jesus’ words to Judas are given a new meaning, on p. 190 when Father Rodrigues is deciding whether he can hear Kichijiro’s confession, hit me right between the eyes. I was really stunned. “What you must do, go and do quickly….” I wonder how others responded to this climactic moment in the book? Or was this the climactic moment in the book for you? If not, what was? And why?

Ever since I finished the book, I’ve been mulling over the questions I was left with by Endo. My questions might not be the same ones you had. But I’ll mention a few of mine, to get the discussion going.

First, I was really struck by how marvelously well Shusaku Endo drew me into this novel. We begin from a place far distant from Japan (in every way), and then we go with the Portuguese padres on that long sea journey, and finally we arrive on the mysterious shore of Japan itself. Now the terrifying threat of capture and torture is hanging over our heads at every instant, and we are kept in suspense as we travel with Father Rodrigues through the gradual, step-by-step revelation of Japan: the actual place as it was to some of the people who lived in it at that time.

As a Westerner, I could not help but deeply identify with the Western priest, as Endo drew me into making this journey along with Father Rodrigues.

But what must this journey have been like for a native of Japan? Or for any non-Western reader?

Endo has set up the novel so that it draws me as a Westerner into a shocking realization of what the preaching of the Christian gospel meant for those who embraced it in 17th century Japan. But how must this same journey have unfolded for Endo’s own Japanese readers? What is most shocking for readers who approach the book from the standpoint of Japan being one’s homeland and the foreigners “invading it” from the outside?

I wonder how much you still identify with Father Rodrigues as the protagonist of this book? I would really like to hear about other people’s journeys through this novel. It must be a very different journey, too, for those who are Christians, whether Japanese or Western, than it is for those who are not Christians?

John Gardner, the great American novelist, said that there are really only “two basic plots” in all of world literature: “Someone goes on a journey” and “A stranger rides into town.”

The brilliant Shusaku Endo has both of these plot-structures running concurrently in this novel. Where did you find yourself situated in this unfolding journey?

Another question. How do you feel about that powerful but ugly phrase, the “swamp” of Japan? Does anyone happen to know the original Japanese word and its connotations? (Is it a rice-paddy type of swamp? Does Japan have “swamps”?) How do you feel about this characterization of Japan by the cruel magistrate Inoue?

Thinking about how the magistrate used this metaphor got me to wondering whether Inoue himself is a violent hater of the West only. Or does he violently hate Japan as well? Is he trying to defend Japan or destroying it, just as much as he thought the foreigners would do?

Finally, what about all the questions we have at the end of the novel about Father Rodrigues and Father Ferreira as the camera (as it were) pans slowly back and away, and as 17th-century Japan fades out of our sight, back into the dusty old records of the historical archives.

I was left haunted by the feeling that the two fathers were not alike. That they did what they did for very different reasons, or in a very different spirit. But if this difference between them is real, it must have been indicated by Endo rather subtly. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on the sources of this feeling, so I kept asking myself why I felt this chasm between the two. Did anyone else feel this way about the two padres at the end of the book?

The archival records at the very end inform us that both padres worked feverishly to prevent any more missionaries from getting into Japan. What were their motivations? Were their motivations the same?

Then there’s Kichijiro. We can’t forget him. Just try to imagine this novel without him. The narrative wouldn’t be able to unfold in an narrative-action sense, or thematically, either. As the Judas figure, he raises all the theological questions Judas raises, and he also serves as a great foil for Father Rodrigues, constantly mirroring the changes going on inside of Rodrigues as his attitudes toward Kichijiro evolve. (What is the Japanese meaning of his name?)

Thinking about Kichijiro, I started to realize that every figure in the novel makes a contribution to the growth of Father Rodriguez. Endo depicts the spiritual pilgrimage of this character in such a way that he was constantly reminding me of my medieval and Renaissance European writers on the journey of Everyman…. (They’re the ones I’ve always taught.) As with those European artists, I thought that for Endo, even Rodrigues’ enemies – or maybe especially his enemies – contribute in necessary ways to that inward journey he is on. Does it even make sense to you to talk about a spiritual journey here?

I might as well admit that the story of Father Rodrigues was so powerful for me that it almost made the title of the novel seem ironic. All of us have felt, whether we believe or do not believe, the terrible silences of God. (Think of Elie Wiesel’s Night and the Holocaust for the Jewish people.) But the breaking of God’s silence in this novel was the most striking and transforming part of it, at least for me. What did you feel?

Father Rodrigues’ apostasy has been controversial. Some Christians readers have condemned it, saying that neither Rodrigues nor Ferreira ever had genuine faith in the first place. How do you feel about this?

In the early 17th century, at precisely the same time in which the events in this novel are set, John Donne was writing: “Sometimes not to be a martyr is itself a martyrdom.” Was Father Rodrigues a Christian martyr?

By the way, what about the many, many physical martyrs in this book? Isn’t it extraordinary, as history shows over and over again, just what people will endure under duress? Sometimes out of faith, and sometimes too out of anger and defiance. Please pardon me, but I kept thinking, “This is exactly why John McCain is right about torture.” After all, McCain knew this from personal experience. Torture doesn’t work. Even the magistrate Inuoue realized this. He needed to find something more dramatic: the apostasy of the very priests themselves.

Even in his early days in Japan, Rodrigues told the Japanese converts to trample the fumie if necessary. I think that’s a very telling moment in the narrative and I’d love to discuss it. (p. 54). And also Father Garrp’s swimming out to drown with the “basket worms” lying wrapped in those mats in the boat on pp. 132-34.

If only Father Rodrigues had been faced with such a relatively “easy” decision to make as Father Garrp faced.

Instead, Rodrigues’ own fate, so skillfully engineered by the magistrate Inoue (with help from Father Ferreira), was much more diabolical. Rodrigues’ most cunning adversary understood Rodrigues very, very well – as persecutors generally do understand their victims, since persecutors are always denying and trying to annihilate something they are struggling against within themselves. (I need to apply this to myself…as Hi and others have pointed out to me….) Anyway, what do you think about the choices confronting Rodrigues, when the Japanese Christians are suffering so terribly, suspended over the pit?

In fact, it is Inoue who poses the most crucial theological question in this novel, the question of Christianity’s essential distinctive. This happens on p. 187 when Inoue asserts his own understanding of the “difference between Christ and Buddha.” But Father Rodrigues thinks of Inoue, “he doesn’t understand Christianity.”

Maybe it was in this scene that I began to feel Father Rodrigues had parted company from Father Ferreira…?

This pivotal scene also reminded me of the perceptive remarks about the “hard edge” that Western religions seem to have for those raised in an Eastern religious climate, made by Hi when he referred to this novel as an example of the dissonance between Christianity and the Japanese. What do you think about this ? Or about Inoue’s role in this scene and throughout the novel?

By the way, to whom is that longer speech of Father Rodrigues addressed? The one at the top of p. 187?

When Father Rodrigues finally makes his choice, he has already been told by Father Ferreira that the victims have renounced their faith repeatedly. Only Rodrigues has the power to save them. Now maybe this is a really strange question, but I wondered, would a Christian have the right to rescue them, if they had not recanted already? To take their martyrdom away from them?

Shusaku Endo, though, chose to avoid this dilemma. Instead, he chose to focus his novel on a different and perhaps larger dilemma. Is Inoue right about the nature of Christianity? Or is Father Ferreira right, and has Japan in the end changed the gospel of Father Rodrigues into something essentially non-Christian? Is it even possible for Christianity to remain itself, in a cultural setting as different as Japan?

Ultimately, the answers each of us arrive at will probably depend upon our answer to the even deeper question Shusaku Endo raises in this novel. What is the essential nature of Christianity?

Calling all Quantum Theorists and Cosmologists who can be patient with innumerate humanists and theists…

Hi, gentle readers. I’m moving another comment thread up onto my front page where it belongs. Please jump into the conversation — just as long as you can be very respectful to science, and very respectful to both humanism and theism, okay? All right then. Ready? Set? Go!

Thank you so much for joining in here, Maria! Welcome to the discussion.

Now Gavin, be patient here with all of us, and don’t take yield to the temptation to take these questionings that non-physicists have as simply some kind of New Age occultism, okay? Continue to be your tolerant and patient self, okay? (If you don’t, I will have to remind you that YOU lean toward many-worlds (gasp!) as the best interpretation of wave collapse — and that sounds extremely “New Agey” to most people, even though it is strictly mathematical, right?)

Maria, I am better at responding when I’ve had time to ponder, so I’ll get back to you later on, except to say that many very good minds (including scientific ones) have seen quantum indeterminacy as opening up a universe that is much more open to freedom and spontaneity than was thought in Newtonian times. And eventually, when we know more about QM, I think it may shed some brand new light on very old metaphysical questions. (BTW, I was just wondering this morning some questions along the lines of what you are saying.) So I will get back to you. Instead, I am now going to ask Gavin the quantum physicist some questions that have come to the forefront for me lately.

[Still, let me recommend to theists the epilogue to C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, in which he talks about nature in a way that shows he had been talking with the physicists at Cambridge and Oxford about Copenhagen QM (quantum mechanics) and the way that many manifest processes in nature seem to depend on resources lying elsewhere. It is so strange to me that many scientists are very comfortable talking about all of this stuff — just as long as no one uses the words “God” or “spiritual,” because these words have very unwelcome connotations (and I’m not sure theists aren’t responsible for many of these bad connotations). Theists, be sure to look, too, at what Richard Dawkins, the bad man hisself, said in an interview discussed in my earlier post, “Bravo for 3 Quarks Daily…”]

In the meantime, let me ask Gavin and other physicists/cosmologists/molecular biologists and so forth, these questions that have finally crystalized for me, questions that may in the long run prove to be related to Maria’s thoughts.


1) My son took a GE course in astronomy/cosmology at Penn last spring and came home for the summer and repeated to me something I’ve heard before about quantum indeterminacy. I want to know if you agree. He said that if you throw a ball at a solid wall a billion billion times, one time it might not bounce back, but continue right on through the wall. I understand why this is said (I think) but it is up-to-date in your view?

2) Here’s another question, one that has been driving me crazy. If you shot a rifle that was not accurately lined up or had looseness in its design where it shouldn’t, isn’t it the case that you would end up with a haphazard spray of bullet holes around the center of the target, and they would be randomly distributed and you couldn’t say where each bullet would be except roughly within a certain tolerance?

Now why is it that the collapse of the wave function is so worrisome to theorists, given that the particles are bound to appear within the range of the wave function and you can even specify the probability of where any given particle might appear on the screen. Setting aside the wave/particle duality itself (if we can), why is it so problematic that we can’t say where each particle itself will land, in a strict deterministic fashion? Aren’t there many things in nature that operate this way? When water is splashing along in a stream, it doesn’t splash exactly the same way twice, but it is certainly determined within certain limits. (?)

In the humanities and social sciences, we talk about norms applying “with a certain degree of determinacy.” In other words, the manifestation is always within a certain range, but the degree to which the normative outcome applies may be very loose or somewhat loose or may apply with very little indeterminacy, but it does not have to strictly every time to be a true normative pattern. Does there really have to be a deterministic mechanism underlying everything in science? If so, what about the water splashing…. (Or Brownian motion? It is random, isn’t it? “Random” within a certain shaping description.)

3) Finally, I remember that you said that Roger Penrose was waaay off in suggesting that a new theory of quantum gravity may eventually provide an underlying mechanism for the wave/particle enigma. (And he connects this with the quantum nature of consciousness, too, which Maria has heard of and that it is in the collective psyche of our culture right now.)

So Gavin, can you clarify what is the exact nature of your disapproval of Penrose, here? Is it the gravity part of the theory that you object to, or is it the very idea that physics will discover an underlying mechanism that is currently unknown, for wave collapse? That you are convinced in sticking with the current maths like Copenhagen does and not looking for anything further?

It seems to me that the general course of scientific progress indicates that an anomaly like wave/particle collapse will eventually be resolved by a new and deeper underlying theory, as in the case of earlier anomalies like black body radiation and the Michelson-Morley experiments. Yet it seems that you like the current maths enough to invest in the “other” explanation: that the current anomaly is explained by the particle being in every possible location but in different universes. But doesn’t this interpretation mean that “we” are in all those different universes too, but each of “us” doesn’t know the others exist? That SOUNDS, at least, pretty far out. I don’t say this to provoke you, Gavin, because I understand how compelling the mathematics are said to be. But what of the “metaphysical” implications? Don’t those give you pause? And why are you so opposed to a more “traditional” way out: that a new theory will provide a new mechanism for a more deterministic explanation?

4) Oh, sorry, one more question. I’ve been reading a philosopher of science James Cushing who describes the de Broglie/Bohm theory of quantum collapse, which Bohm developed after the acceptance of the Copenhagen approach as the standard theory. Cushing says Bohm’s iis a deterministic theory, and that it explains the phenomenon as well as Copenhagen does, and he contends that it is merely historical contingency that the Copenhagen hit the scene first and became orthodoxy. Do you have any thoughts on this? I would expect that physicists would opt for a deterministic theory if it really held water for them, even if another theory got there first….?

Sorry to load all of this questions onto poor Gavin. Any other physicists or others out there who care to comment on any of these questions? Or innumerate humanists and/or theists?

Invitation: to discuss Shusaku Endo’s “Silence”

As the month of October is slipping by us, remember that you’re invited to read (or reread) the great novel Silence, written by one of Japan’s finest novelists, Shusaku Endo. In November, we’ll see if we can get some discussion of this novel going. The conversations we’ve had here about physics and poststructuralism have had the perverse effect of helping direct me more deeply into my off-line theoretical writing, so I have had less time for blogging. But I’d love to talk over this provocative novel that Hi brought up with the varied readers we have here. [For some thoughts on science and literature, wherein I end up comparing Endo and Einstein, see my comment here.]

Silence is a “spare and elegant” classic that is frequently taught in “international fiction” courses, which is how I happened to pick it up to read years ago, when a colleague was teaching it. In it, Endo shows us an historic clash of cultures by telling the story of a seventeenth-century European missionary to Japan and his flock of Japanese converts, as they seek to endure a fierce persecution.

Endo, who is Japanese, identified himself as a Christian. (And Hi has some very thoughtful remarks on this and on Christianity in Japan.) In any case, he certainly looks very deeply into the idea of Christian sacrifice and martyrdom in this novel — so deeply that it has aroused disquiet and even protest among Christians.

For myself as a Christian, I was deeply moved by reading this difficult and unforgettable book. It’s a beautiful piece of writing and I found it spiritually bracing and cleansing. It gets down to basics about what Christ’s death means for believers in a way nothing else I’ve ever read has done.

But it’s a very rich novel, with many faces, and if I am not mistaken, Hi introduced it in connection with the question of why anyone would (or should) embrace belief in the Christian God, or in any gods, when different cultures have such different religious traditions. (Science on the other hand has a certain universality that appeals across cultures. I believe that is part of this thought.) And Hi also mentions how hard-edged and aggressive all of the Western religions seem to be, from the Eastern perspective accustomed to Buddhism and Shintu. But he says this all, better than I am doing.

As Christians are heading toward the season of Advent, a season that calls them to “silence” and darkness, in which they await the coming of the Christ-child and ponder what this nativity means, it seems appropriate to read a novel called Silence, about a Christian who is forced to make a terrible choice in a time of great personal darkness — in a time of utter silence from God, which might remind us of Mother Theresa’s letters about her sense of “abandonment” by God. (We talked about this a little bit over at The Land of Unlikeness. But not in depth, and I still have many questions about them.)

Another connection with current issues, perhaps, is to be found in the way that Endo’s protagonist does not know for sure (how can he?) whether his God will see his decision as sinful and blasphemous, or as being perhaps in the deepest likeness to Christ’s divine love as manifested on the Cross. He is an extreme situation, in which none of us would wish to find ourselves, for which no conventional guidelines from the past seem to apply. Faith, though, always tests not us, but who we think God is, and what God is for us (this God who “is love”).

Right now, we Episcopalians find ourselves in a place where the same diametrically opposed interpretations of our actions are being offered us. How can we know for sure? We have to trust in the God we know. I have never thought that the real question is, does God exist? No, the real question is, who and what is God?

And the question, who is God, what is God, is also the question: what have I found in my journey that compells my allegiance and is worthy of my deepest devotion?

I’m pretty sure that we’ll be able to ponder this novel, and pursue whatever issues it raises for us, without being militant or disputatious. So, my very gentle readers (gentle most of the time anyway), I hope you’ll get your copies and start reading….

Here’s to November!

Conversation continues on mass, Higgs field, and science amidst the other liberal arts…

Gavin asks:

“Janet, I got the answer to what you want to do, but I’m still unsure whether learning some science has anything to do with it. Why are you asking about mass and energy and the Higgs Boson? Is this really what you need to know?”

Janet replies:

Here’s why, Gavin. (Why I’m asking about mass, energy, and the Higgs field.) It must seem like I have had a scatter-gun set of questions over the course of this blog, but they actually are guided by my own script and my own “strategy.”

So I do have a strategy, and I have worked on various pieces of it for years, like the Greeks, medievals, and 17th century pieces, but it’s a very broad and expansive project, and not a narrowly focused endeavor such as our academia most readily approves. But some people HAVE to be generalists, popularizers, and sythesizers, too. Or try to be!

Others have already done so much of the thought work. But I specifically want to try to “put it in terms” that Americans can understand and “relate to,” as they say, and not speak merely to specialists in one field or another….)

So I’m interested in mass, energy, and the Higgs field in relation to common assumptions about “objects,” and here’s why. The Anglo-American tradition of philosophy, called “analytic” of course, started out by trying to be a “scientific” philosophy with a mathematico-logical approach, around the turn of the 20th century (Frege, Russell, early Wittgenstein). Their foundationalist efforts are rightly termed “objectivist,” and it’s that set of assumptions concerned with the nature of “objects” vis-a-vis reality is what I’m always thinking about, because it constitutes a lot of what prevents scientists and humanists from talking to each other.

Their effort to ground science (as they understood it) and to ground mathematics (as they understood it) in symbolic logic relied on an explicitly stated assumption: that, as Russell said, “the universe consists of a plurality of objects, standing in external relations to one another.” By “external relations” they meant that the object wouldn’t be any different, no matter what set of relations it was put into. They weren’t having any of this “mutually self-constituted” or “dialectical” relationship stuff that was being looked into on the Continent (Hegelian dialectic, phenomenology, and soon Saussurean sign-systems and hermeneutics).

Then Russell et alia sought to show the logical conditions in which a verbal statement could be said to have properly captured the strictly “external” relationships between “objects.” A set of such “external” relationships was what Russell called a “fact.” Reality, in this tradition, is the natural world, viewed as being strictly a matter of “objects” and “facts.” It’s really ironic that Russell and Whitehead were writing Principia Mathematica right when Einstein was working out the theories that led to mass-energy and time-space equivalence as deeply interrelated phenomena…. Don’t even ask where “Hamlet” would stand in this view of “reality.” Something like “Shakespeare wrote Hamlet” captures a “fact”; it states the external relation between two objects, documentedly empirically existing objects….

On the other hand, the Continent approached the nature of scientific method very differently,after Saussure and other thinkers sunk in. And therefore, Anglo-American analytic philosophy and Continental thinkers have had the same problems speaking to each other that we see here in the U.S. and Great Britain, between the hard scientists and the cultural theorists, in the Alan Sokal hoax affair or in the responses to Dawkins’ polemic against religion. Empiricists against cultural theorists.

But the Continental philosophers were assuming a different universe: they were trying to firgure out how to look into deeply interrelated and internally connected and constituted states of affairs, which must be “known” dialectically, through a back-and-forth process of inquiry that probably never gets finished. Much more like what I described in my posts on Plato’s Ion. (Russellian thinkers tend to expect a finished edifice of scientific truth; a complete description of the natural world. It’s built into their view of the universe, as you can see.)

But on the Continent they certainly did not deny the reality of the natural world or science’s genuine interaction with it — but they are often misunderstood here in the U.S. because, I believe, of our touchingly Russellian assumptions. As soon as we hear anyone talking as though reality includes much more than hard concrete objects, or whenever anyone is exploring the interactions of theory-building in one area with the operative linguistic and cultural constructions in the same society, then we tend to assume they are denying the hard sciences and MUST therefore be relativists and social constructionists. (And sometimes over here, this is exactly the case.)

So my searching for fresh vocabulary in order to develop a description of, let’s say, “the episteme” and its pursuit of the formal script, that can apply to all the disciplines, has got to be able to describe what scientists do, in a way they can approve of, but that goes beyond naive “objectivism,” which equates “truth” with empirical “objects” and obvious, non-mediated “relationships” between empirical objects. (Where does this leave what Plato and Aristotle saw as the biggest component, the theoretical formalizations and the structures they build for understanding.)

I’m very interested in how 17th century physicists saw their own methods, and even then, I don’t think the Russell approach comes anywhere near to describing how they developed their physics or the nature of what it was they are trying to know about. Galileo and Newton, for instance, were dealing with a continuous sequence of action that unfolded over time and they were looking for proportionalities and trying to name or conceptualize various elements in the entire picture, as they rehearsed the experiments over and over again (here, for the motion of falling). And of course they looked for whatever measurable elements or quantities might be involved — quantities of matter, force, momentum, velocity, and so forth.

In the process, it’s notable how certain quantities could be “solved for” — they didn’t need to be always directly measurable in every case. So right from the start, you could quantify “mass” without knowing exactly what mass “is.” It is relationally defined, structurally defined, like so many things in the humanities and social sciences. But at first mass seemed to be so fundamental and empirically self-evident, in its relationship to “weight.” Its mode of existence seemed so obvious. It was equal to “quantity of matter” (density) times volume. And “Eureka!” We knew how to measure volume indirectly, from classical Greece. So we could always arrive at a numerical sum for density through weight and volume.

Nowadays, we know that weight is only a relative concept — it manifests itself in relation to a gravitational field and it depends upon the strength of the field. Similarly, gravity and its effects (bending space) are relational quantities defined by the equations they work in. Now, while weight varies, the mass of an object does not vary; it does not increase as it speed up, Gavin clarifies, but its energy does. So it is even more clear now that it is defined formally or relationally, as the particular variable that it is in the equations? Is that right? Do you see why this would be helpful to me? I want people to be able to take “formal” things seriously whether or not they are made of matter or are, perhaps, obvious relationships between two material objects that remain unchanged by those relationships. Energy seems important here, because as energy, it is not mass, but is convertible into mass. (??)

And there are “particles” that do not have mass. Clearly, then, neither mass nor lack of it determines what “exists,” or defines absolutely what an object “is.” This doesn’t make massless things less real of course. But it makes it easier to see the kind of “scientism” upon which Russell built his logic and that still defines what “really exists” for most Americans.

This brings us to the Higgs field. I was familiar with electro-magnetic fields (I mistakenly called these “energy fields”) and how the waves of which they usually seem to be composed can manifest themselves as particles. Some particles have mass (electrons) and some don’t (photons). But the Higgs field really interested me because it exists everywhere even in the vacuum of deep space where there is no matter by definition. If mass is the measure of an object’s resistance to change of velocity (its inertia), then the Higgs field is hypothesized as being what particles interact with, that determines their mass, I guess. A “3 quarks daily” piece described it as like a field of snow, and some particles have to wade through it, while others seem to have snowshoes or even skis….

I’m interested in fields just like I’m interested in mass and mass-less-ness, in that there are “things” in physics that are relationally and mathematically hypothesized and defined without needing to be an empirical “object” in the old naive sense. What is the mode of existence of a Higgs field or a massless particle (or of any particle)? We don’t know and we don’t need to know, because they have FORMAL reality, based on the way physics operates experimentally and mathematically in knowing about its own kind of thing.

I’m not trying to show that physics deals with non-existent or fictional “things” but rather that the structure of the physical world is not well represented by thinking of it as material “objects” standing in external relations to one another. Actually, the Russell effort in mathematical logic failed and is now abandoned, but I think most Americans think of “reality” the same way that Russell did, because they have no other convenient way to think of it.

The science bloggers who are most ferocious rely on Russellian vocabulary all the time. I remember a young woman who wrote in to express how disturbed she was when she attended a lecture by a major physicist and he spent the time assessing whether it could be said that quarks “really exist.” He concluded that, on the whole, science was justified in saying that they do exist. She was very disturbed by this, because she was used to saying that science deals only with things that really exist as empirical objects.

She was naive, of course, because physics is always methodologically un-certain of the exact relationship between its current models and whatever the “reality” might be. But wouldn’t it be good to have a GE program in the liberal arts that could fill her in without discrediting science, or demeaning the non-scientific disciplines? If I recall correctly, in one of our earliest exchanges, Gavin suggested that science is objective and general, as opposed to the more idiosyncratic and subjective areas of life and I said we needed a clearer description, because many other areas of life show general regularities and can be studied formally without being sciences.

In my own fields, we deal with “formal principles” all the time, just as though they “exist” out there in their own right, even though they are better regarded as our current attempts to model certain cultural “norms” that we try to observe. These are principles, idealized as norms, which humans statistically seem to “obey,” but their exact mode of existence is problematic, since whatever they are, they are internalized by human subjects from the shared semiotic codes of the culture, and we can’t even decide on the ontological status of mental concepts! Let alone the norms governing a mental concept for an entire language community….

Americans have trouble with this work with formal relationships and systems because they sort of want us to point them to the empirical “object” that is a formal sign system. Or they want a relationship in a sign system to be something separate from the signs it is relating to one another. But everything in a sign system is relative to everything else, mutually self-constituting.

Or they want any formal principle or relationship to be a strictly deterministic law. If it is merely probablistic, or “for the most part,” then they think it isn’t a real thing. It can’t be scientific or rigorous unless it is an “object” or a deterministic “law” relation objects to one another. But we are observing the behaviors and building our models or scripts for the system of mental/perceptual associations that we designate a sign system, whether it is a language or a code of etiquette or a kinship system or any other rule-governed practice. And we Americans would be very happy if language were simply a set of “words” standing in purely referential relationships to external objects. We don’t like it getting more complex than this, but basically it was the highly mediated and complex multi-leveled structure of language that defeated the project of Russell’s “scientific” rationalism.

In Continental thought, however, it turns out that when we say “puppy,” the meaning of the word is constituted by a much deeper web of associations that we’ve learned in addition to the simple word-refers-to-object “fact” that we can end up taking for granted once we’ve learned the language on all its levels of functioning. There is a much deeper and more complicated mental and perceptual structure involved than simply in just using the word “puppy” as though it were a verbal object standing in a relationship to a concrete empirical object.

But I can use the Greek notion of episteme for this linguistic situation quite beautifully, because it takes for granted the idea that formal entities “exist,” such as the kind of thing called “puppy,” and that the kind of thing is itself composed out of formal relationships that make it what it is. Just think. The KINDs of things for which we have nouns don’t “exist” in the world in the same way as an actual puppy does, but for human beings it does exist, and most people would say that the KINDs of thing humans notice and name do correspond with something in the real world, even though only humans explicitly think and name of a discrete object as also being a formal member of a class of things. (Family pets learn their own names along with the names of the human family members, but they wouldn’t recognize category names such as “humans” and “dogs” and “cats,” would they? This formal element is what makes human language and thought possible. What the Greeks thought of as “Form”-al.)

This recognition and use of “formal” entities (like numbers, for another fascinating example) was the focus of Greek philosophy and their vision of the liberal arts. So they offer us a very efficient and interesting new (old) way to think about all the disciplines — that we are all seeking to find the scripts for different phenomena by rehearsing them and formalizing the underlying structures — but people run aground right away here, because they protest that science deals with real things, but you are talking about “formal” structures of language and cultural codes and they must be less real things or fictions because they don’t empirically exist, do they? Or if we claim they do exist, then are we claiming that science is “just a social code” too?

Well, we work from observation to theory and from theory to observation just as physics does, so that we have a deep context of theoretical work just as physics does, when it moves toward naming smaller and smaller constituent components of the physical world, for instance.

A difference is that we have to work together more “intuitively” than the scientists — not more intuitively than physicists do when they are developing hypotheses to test (because this is very intuitive and creative and a real “art”) but more intuitively in that we have to discuss and test our theories against much less isolatable phenomena and in less quantifiably measurable and direct ways, to make our progress.

Remember though, that we are dealing with historical and cultural human phenomena, and the fact that our formalizations are part of our time and place and in conversation with them is a large part of their value. It might not matter to physics when Planck’s constant was discovered or who discovered it, for its consequences would remain to be developed, but part of the purpose of our disciplines is that we do the best we can to be always relating our findings to the problems of our own times and to the meaning of our personal lives, and this is appropriate to the nature of our disciplines and what we are studying.

But like the physicists, as we are carried from external observations to underlying formal relationships and theoretical construct, we havegood reason to believe in the existence of what we are studying, based on a whole history of evolving theory, the way psyschologists believe in “repression” for instance, and in “working through,” because they see that mechanism operating over and over again in therapeutic and other situations, and yet the script for it and how it works is always evolving.

So you see it is very important for me that physics has such a large theoretical and formal component and deals with kinds of quantities which to some degree define each other, and not simply with “material objects.” It’s important, that is, if we are to develop a description that can make sense to all of us and that can be shared by hard scientists and cultural theorists alike, as well as musicians and so forth, so that they can understand and respect each other’s efforts to know.

“Rehearsal”: Writing the scripts for nature and faith?

Gavin says:

I may not have been quite clear. I think your goals are great, I’m trying to understand the strategy and I want you to understand how the strategy is going to look to scientists who are fending off well coordinated and well funded attacks on their credibility. When you make a comment like:

“And, okay, I’m sorry, but if energy is massless and if it fills “empty” space, in what sense then are we still saying that the science of physics is an empirical science?” [in “Thanks, Great Impetus for my work”]

We are going to flip out. I don’t think this is what you intend, but I’m saying that you start sounding a lot like a global warming denier or an advocate of intelligent design when you question the foundations of our field based on . . . I don’t even know what it is based on because I have no idea what that sentence is talking about!

Janet replies:

Oh, what a relief. I need people to tell me when I say things like that. This blog has helped me be much more sensitive to responses from the science side, but I still take these shortcuts and get in trouble. I need to make one long structured argument where I can make all the qualifications I need to make as I go along. (I work on this longer argument all the time.)

I’ve been thinking hard about this particular impasse you and I have hit. One thing is that a liberal art is supposed to be liberating. Learning a plurality of them is supposed to be personally, intellectually, and civic-ly liberating. So we can work for a good society and strive for good lives, as well as pushing back the frontiers of knowledge within our fields.

When I said that about “empirical” I was thinking of the science bloggers with their unthinking descriptions of what it is they think they are doing as scientists, when it should be uppermost in their minds, perhaps, how complicated and wonderfully unexpected it all has become. I was also thinking of Hume and my life-long battle with those philosophers who say that the only things we can know to be real are direct sensory impressions, when science is always working with theoretical constructs and the way those constructs as a whole point forward. Like the standard theory guiding you toward the HIggs boson when we don’t empirically know it exists at this point. That is such a good paradigm for scientific progress, isn’t it?

My concern with the science blogs — just those really ferocious ones — is that those kids aren’t liberated. They are in a lot of pain and they are afraid. They are really angry and out for blood. They remind me of some of the fundamentalist kids I’ve worked with over the years within Christianity.

I woke up this morning with the word REHEARSAL in my mind. Re-hearsal. I wonder if this metaphor or model might be made to help? Like every other discipline, perhaps, science is trying to write the script for how the natural world works. But instead of having the script in advance and rehearsing it for the final performance, you are working on developing the script piece by piece as you go along. Galileo and Newton worked on a script for physical motion and how objects move by rehearsing over and over again with pendulums and rolling balls and formulating the principles that they worked up a script to fit the phenomena. Their work was gorgeous and superb and solid, but of course when we got other parts of the script going and looked at larger sections of it, you had to revise the interpretations of the pieces and move to a deeper and more inclusive subtext. And now scientists realize that they will most probably always be doing that because the reality for which they are writing the script is so complex and studying parts of it are perhaps impossible and so on.

What makes the hard sciences different from other disciplines, and from the way jazz musicians develop the script of jazz improvisation or literary theorists write the scripts for how the textual motions of Hamlet correspond to large and deeper cultural subtexts, or how parents read and talk and try to piece together the best script they can for parenting their kids, is the nature of the phenomena they are dealing with, which can be studied through their methodology based on experimental verification of hypothesis (provisional scripts) — or rather experimental “falsification,” since the experiments can basically only disprove, but not prove, the hypothesis. This is so wonderful and so fundamentally creative and ingenuous, that it is sad to see it being talked about by some of its own defenders as though it was a matter of proving facts and then building them one and top of another.

Is this better?

The problem with biblical literalism is very much the same. If the scriptures might be a set of texts reflecting encounters with God and offering profound reflections and insights on subjects such as human sin and error and pride and the power of love, then those who respect these texts must be constantly engaged in finding their scripts and the deeper subtexts that might relate the scripts. The meanings aren’t sitting there on the surface ready to be gobbled up, any more than nature’s script is sitting on the surface self-evidently there for all to see.

We Christians have to get together in our various traditions and work on it by trial and error and learn from the history of our traditions and our developing scripts for these texts, and their deeper trajectories. We have to hold fast to our deepest insights and experiences over the centuries, and yet constantly seize the subtexts afresh. We have paradigm change with underlying continuitity just as science does, and we are even more concerned about interpretation because we have to live our lives by our best current interpretations, even though we know they are not absolute. These texts all point beyond themselves in a way that the script for the natural world was not designed to do. Science develops its script by looking at the natural world in purely naturalistic terms.

I’m an Episcopalian, and right now in New Orleans the American Episcopla Church is at loggerheads with parts of the world-wide Anglican communion, especially the African churches, over how to read the text of the Christian tradition and scriptures. They have a different script than most of us do. And we are trying to model how to remain humble and thoughtful and be ready to make respectful compromises and still move forward with what we in all conscience think the script ultimately has been pointing toward all along, an inclusive vision.

But we don’t claim to have a proven certainty that we can force upon others, or that our script has a lock on the truth. I totally understand why many scientists might question why we keep going with such a search for knowledge here, where the texts and their scripts are so much less readily determined than in the sciences. (I do think we are doing validity testing all the time, every hour of every day, but it isn’t the nice controlled experiments of science!) Lets just say that the nature of this knowledge, the experience of this relationship, however limited and uncertain, is for us worth the quest.

The Anglican tradition has always been the church of the via media — the “middle way” — and the one that has tried to refuse to go to one extreme or the other, but keeps on negotiating a thoughtful position in the midst of all the controversies, keeping in conversation with the Orthodox and with Catholicism and Protestantism and holding the radical middle, so to speak.

But I’m getting away from the central script here, which is the nature of the liberal arts and of human ways of knowing in general. Does this “script” metaphor seem helpful? For those who read the Wily Socrates posts on Plato’s Ion, the “scripts” here are the ikes, the epistemes, and there are many of them and they each formulate the elegant formalities of their own kind of thing. This is how medieval theologians worked on scripture and on their doctrinal fields, by the way. The creeds were scripts for where we were going and what we were trying to experience and understand, individually and collectively, not propositional statements to which we could “agree.” The truths of the creeds were what we were on a pilgrimage to try to understand, not propositions to be agreed to blindly for their own sake.

Augustine said that the one enduring subtext of all the scriptural texts was “to enhance the reign of charity,” and that every interpretation must be guided by that principle. The script is a script of love, in other words. In the natural world, the script science has been developing through its superb and ingenuous rehearsals has perhaps been guided by the principle of elegant formal causation, which may or may not amount to strict deterministic causation in various situations, but is always mathematical and elegant.

More guest posts…. The meaning of “randomness” in science

Faculty at my university have gotten into a lively discussion about the scientific notion of “randomness,” as in random mutation (as the first step in natural selection), set off by some criticisms of Michael Behe’s Edge of Evolution (Behe is in the Intelligent Design movement). As Christians, they are (like me, of course) in the strange position of personally believing in “an intelligent designer,” so to speak, but — except for two that I know of (out of 140 faculty members) — of supporting Darwinism and opposing the teaching of Intelligent Design in biology classrooms.

So I’m going to post (with permission) several of our facnet emails, partly to take Hi off the hot seat, and partly because these guest posts may bring new questions, from a theistic standpoint this time around, into our eclectic conversation.

First, here is Richard from our school of religion. Followed by one of our biochemists, named Ben. And finally, a contribution by Stamatis, a Greek Orthodox Christian, a physicist who has taught Western science to Buddhist monks in India several times, at the Dalai Lama’s invitation.

Rick says: At the risk of grinding my own axe, and perhaps of dulling everybody else’s, I would like to ask for an explanation of “explanation.” That is, does any given scientific hypothesis have “explanatory power” because, and only to the extent that, it is capable of “saving the phenomena,” i.e., of furnishing a plausible account of the material and efficient causes of what we can observe in nature? And would such a hypothesis ipso facto furnish “evidence for God”? And does “evidence for God” mean “evidence for God’s existence,” or “evidence of God’s purposes”?

All of which is to say that I am not convinced—but maybe nobody is claiming—that a scientific hypothesis which had great “explanatory power” with respect to the “how” of certain natural phenomena would thereby satisfy the religious question of “why” those phenomena are as they are. And lacking that, I am not convinced that such a hypothesis would serve the purpose of giving warrant either for the belief that God exists or, if God does exist, for the belief that divine providence in some way directs the course of natural and human history as a whole and of our individual lives.

Let me put this with embarrassing concreteness. I happen to know something about “random mutations.” My eldest daughter is the victim of one—a particular mutation to the gene which controls skeletal development in vertebrates, and a mutation which occurs, at least among humans, in about one in every two million births. (I don’t know the frequency of occurrence in other vertebrates, although I’m sure it is exceedingly rare— and probably always fatal. The people who are researching this condition have reported no naturally occurring instances of the condition in other species, and are busy trying to create a “mouse model” of the disease in order to develop treatments and a cure.) Now, suppose a baby is born with the condition and properly diagnosed. The parents will quite naturally ask their doctor, “Why did this happen?” Would the doctor be said to have given them an answer to that question if she gave a thorough explanation of how “random mutations” occur in nature, and of how nature “selects” (or God decrees) certain mutations for incorporation into the genomes of various species, and of how this particular mutation is likely to effect the life of this particular child? I doubt it. Such information would have no “explanatory power” whatsoever with respect to the existential and religious question of how the parents are to make sense of what, for them, is not a biological curiosity but also a human tragedy.

This is by no means to deny the importance of having answers to the questions of why mutations occur, or how they are “selected for” or “selected against,” or how they shape the life of the individual organisms in which they occur. It is only to say that for the parents of a child with a genetic disease, finding God in the midst of their tragedy is something more, and something different, from having an explanation, however powerful, of the etiology of the mutation.

Ben writes:

I’m really enjoying the fascinating back-and-forth here, and since I’m the person who teaches Biochemistry I suppose I should take this chance to do a little in-box-filling of my own.

First of all, Rick’s post is about the most poignant reminder possible of the limits to our conversation, and the meaning of the word “explanation.” If we’re talking about truly satisfying explanation, then some type of revelation has to be involved. There’s no such thing as fully satisfying explanation from the natural world. If I want to make a drug that might help Sarah, I’m going to want the best possible physical mechanism for how that mutation causes her disease. I’ll want an explanation for how it works now, and maybe if I understand some parts of how that mechanism came to be, I’ll be able to make a better drug. This is only possible because of the God-given rationality and consistency of the natural world, so even this mechanism would be a gift of grace. I pray that grace and insight will be given in this area, and I know there are scientists working on that as I type. I think a prayer for wisdom for them would be fitting.
If Michael Behe’s theory would help me understand Sarah’s disease, and if that understanding could help me make a drug that could heal in whatever small or large way, I would latch onto that theory no matter if every other scientist in the world disagreed with me. I’m already biased into thinking there is a Creator, after all, so why not find his hand in the gaps of protein assembly? I would love to be able to do that. I’ve tried to adopt Behe’s theories and get them to work. But I can’t. They don’t work at the level of helping me design experiments. They don’t help at a level of helping me teach biochemistry, or explain disease mechanisms.
Part of this comes from the very nature of Behe’s argument, that it really is a “God of the gaps” argument writ small. If he’s right, then perhaps there is no useful knowledge to be gained from studying the intricacies of protein assembly because it is all designed directly by something supernatural.
I just don’t think Behe’s right because I, as a potentially sympathetic biochemist, cannot get his ideas to work well enough to even design an experiment to go after them. And only a handful of other scientists have even joined him in the possibility, none with anything concrete enough to be called a research program. Nothing I can build on, at least. I do have an idea for an experiment — but one that would directly prove that one of Behe’s foundational claims is wrong. (I was thinking about the irony of trying to get funding from the Discovery Institute for an experiment that, if it worked, would prove Intelligent Design wrong.) This hypothesis is not directly done because I have other experiments to do and, you know, a few classes to teach and other demands on my time and resources — but I have not given up on the idea yet!
There are lots of details in this that I’m just glossing over for a general audience, but the bottom line is that as a scientist with a professional interest in Behe’s ideas, I simply cannot build anything on his assumptions. It always falls down before I can even come up with a decent research plan, because it’s based on what we cannot know rather than what we can.
This post is already long enough, so I’ll leave with one more very summarized thought: I just read about a group of scientists that made a million random proteins in the test tube. The only design given to these proteins is that they were guaranteed to be “good” proteins: well-folded, globular, not clumping together or doing annoying things that would get in the way of the experiment. Other than that, you had a set of proteins that the only constraint is that they could just sit around and be proteins. That’s kind of boring in itself, but they took this set and tested it to see if any of these proteins, which were entirely undesigned and random with respect to function, would be able to act as enzymes. And they did find many that actually had “accidental” enzymatic activity: some could cleave esters, some were peroxidases, ande offhand I forget what else.
I wish I knew the Latin word for randomness (where’s Owen when you need him); I would describe this activity as being “ex [randomness]” (i.e. “out from randomness”). It’s really an amazing result, that points out to me how much can arise from randomness. That doesn’t mean they’re meaningless, far from it. It’s just the understanding of the mechanism for how life works on the smallest level can work with a large dollop of randomness thrown in, even running things in a way.
I’m sure I’m leaving lots out, because there have been lots of fascinating points on all sides I’ve been itching to reply to, but hopefully this is a start for the “biochemist’s perspective.”


Finally, Stamatis says: As a community of Christian scholars, we have a responsibility to practice radical reconciliation between faith and science in our churches, our children’s schools, and our lives. For me, that reconciliation involves finding evidence for God (in Miller’s words) “in what science does understand” as opposed to what science does not yet understand.

As a faculty member involved in the preparation of science teachers, I was particularly impressed with the clarity of Miller’s response to a question, which I reproduce below. In some regions of the U.S., educators are being encouraged, sometimes forced, by their institution to teach “alternative” ideas to evolution. What is your response to this development?

Miller: Disappointment. If the ideas being offered were genuinely scientific alternatives, if they were ideas that had significant support within the scientific community or substantial experimental evidence, it might be interesting to include them in the science classroom.

Unfortunately, the ”alternatives” actually being offered are not scientific at all. The insertion of an idea such as young-earth creationism, which requires a rejection of astronomy, physics, and chemistry as well as biology, into the scientific curriculum makes about as much sense as teaching witchcraft in medical school. The other alternative often proposed, so-called “intelligent” design, doesn’t even rise to the level of being a scientific hypothesis. It has no explanatory power and approaches scientific problems by nothing more than an appeal to the “designer.” Since such appeals are not testable, they don’t amount to science and can only mislead students as to the nature of science and scientific evidence.

[see the review of M. Behe’s Edge of Evolution by K. R. Miller in Nature 447, 1055-1056 (28 June 2007) | doi:10.1038/4471055a; Published online 27 June 2007. Miller is an eminent biochemist who teaches at Brown University and is an observant Christian. He offers from a scientist’s perspective another reading on “random.” See also, which discusses his Finding Darwin’s God.]

What does “exist” mean? God, ether, Hamlet, and Endo’s Silence

I have wrung permission from the modest gentleman Hi to post his long comment (in reply to mine about God)  as a “guest post,” partly because it got buried in my spam filter for two weeks but mostly because it raises so honestly the most genuinely difficult issues this weblog was established to address.  I don’t know all the answers to Hi’s acute questions, but I do know that I’ve worked on these same questions most of my life. I also know that everybody in the world should read the book Hi mentions, Shusaku Endo’s Silence. (Go do that and then come back here to discuss it?) So here is Hi, a molecular biologist who has alerted us to lots of issues in the history of physics and to Reading Lolita in Tehran among other things


Hi writes: I have been having trouble posting my comment for the last several days. I try again, although it may be better if it doesn’t appear.

I see a parallel between god and ether. Ether was an idea that used to be firmly believed. But the simplest idea of ether was not compatible with Michelson-Morley experiment nor Maxwell’s equations. Something had to give. A seemingly nice solution would be to tinker the concept of ether, namely by introducing Lorentz transformation. Now they had ether that was compatible with the experiment. That was until Einstein pointed out that the modified version of ether was no longer meaningful.

So, on one hand there was the old version of ether that would have been meaningful had it been compatible with the experiments. On the other there was the new version of ether that was compatible with the experiments, but was reduced to be meaningless. It was not possible to be both compatible with the experiments and meaningful.

In many situations, there is a trade-off. In the uncertain principle, if you want to know the precise position, you sacrifice the information about the momentum. Likewise, it seems to me, that if you make your concept of god more compatible with science, you loose the “godness” of the god, the very appeal that you want to believe in god. Gods that frequently and actively intervene with human lives, answering the prayers and causing miracles along the way, are difficult to reconcile with science. You can’t have it both ways.

It seems to me that many scientists who are believers keep a delicate balance to make their gods as compatible with science as possible but still meaningful enough for them. For example, read what Rob Knop of Galactic Interaction blog wrote about his faith. But it is difficult keep all the attributes of god that are traditionally believed in religions this way. Einstein can be considered to be an extreme example. (Although I don’t think it appropriate to consider him among the believers any more when he himself explicitly said he was not religious.) When the concept of god is made as pure and neutral as Einstein did, I have little problem. (And I believe Dawkins said so, too.) I would have preferred if he had not use the word “god” as it is contaminated with all the other images associated with it. But Einstein made clear what his god was not. He did not believe “in a God who concerns himself with the fates and the actions of human beings.” If this is close to traditional Judeo-Christian concept of god, why was Spinoza a controversial figure? Are you willing to go this far?

I have also encountered a graduate student in biology who was a creationist. It is strange how her biology and creationism can coexist in her head. I also met a Jewish student who had no trouble believing in the god that gives a special favor to his people. It doesn’t seem like he understood what that would mean to the Indians and the Chinese and the Japanese who worked with him. I think these are examples of compartmentalizations of thoughts. These are opposite of what I think is great about science. Newton’s breakthrough came out when he realized that the same laws can describe the motions of the stars and the motion of a falling apple. (Not to mention that the same laws apply today as well as yesterday.) Likewise, a great advance in chemistry was made when it was shown that organic substances can be synthesized without the help of any “vital force”. At the chemical level, there is no difference between the living and non-living. There is nothing that is privileged. The earth is no longer the center of the universe. It is true that we have all these different disciplines, such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc. And I said chemistry is not merely applied physics, and biology is not merely applied chemistry. (And I would add that knowledge of acoustics won’t make you a better musician.) So, there is specialization. But that doesn’t mean that these different fields are independent to each other. Chemistry certainly binds what biologically possible. However excellent baseball pitcher you are, you cannot break the laws of physics. (And who says physics is superior to baseball?)

So, where do you fit? It seems to me that you want to have it both ways. And you seem to think you can have it both ways by defining the god as flexible as possible and making sophisticated philosophical arguments.

Statements like “God exists.” or “God is real.” are only meaningful if we agree on what we mean by “god,” “exist” or “real.” In what sense is “Hamlet” real? In a sense that “Hamlet” the man lived the life exactly like the way depicted in the story, or in a sense that the STORY of Hamlet exists in the minds of us who read the story? Likewise, it seems to me that it is the STORY of the god that really exists and not the entity you call god. We can make god exist depending on the meaning of the word “exist,” but that may also allow existence of unicorns and dragons. And what do we mean by “god”? Are you willing to limit the god the way Einstein defined it? Why do you care to call it “god” anyway? Isn’t is because the word “god” carries with it a flavor of traditional god that you are attached to?

(This reminds me of a character in a novel by the Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo. The character, a young Japanese priest suggests using the world “onion” instead of “god”. In the story, he is considered heretic. In real life, some of Endo’s harshest critics were fellow Christians. Being an atheist, of course my view is different from that of Endo. But I feel a sympathy for Endo who struggled with his faith in a country where Christians are minorities and who had to ask tough questions about his faith.)

What about emergence? I have a mixed feeling about the word emergence. On one hand, I genuinely believe it is a useful concept and that there are phenomena that can be rightly described as emergent. (And the examples were discussed.) So, I’m in no way going to join the people who want to purge the word. (See the link below.) But on the other hand, it is true that emergence is often used to conveniently categorize anything mystical and magical and not well-understood. And I suspect that’s the way you are using the word emergent. But I really don’t understand your use of the word emergent, except to think that it is different from the way I use it.

But let me try to make some connection. Here is a quote form the following discussion about emergence.

“Supposedly, in the early nineties when the Russians were trying to transition to a capitalist economy, a delegation from the economic ministry went to visit England, to see how a properly market-based economy would work. The British took them on a tour, among other things, of an open-air fresh foods market. The Russians were shown around the market, and were appropriately impressed. Afterwards, one of the senior delegation members approached one of his escorts: “So, who sets the price for rice in this market?“ The escort was puzzled a bit, and responded, “No one sets the price. It’s set on the market.“ And the Russian responded, “Yes, yes, I know, of course that’s the official line. But who really sets the price of rice?“”

Perhaps you could call the “invisible hand” that makes the market function as the “god” of the market. But what would you achieve by doing so? Would you achieve any deeper understanding of how the market works? Would you worship the god of the market? In fact it would be quite misleading to anthropomorphize the system that functions without a single central player giving the orders.

I don’t question that you are genuinely fascinated by science. But it seems to me that you are often cherry-picking the science and the scientists that conform to your world view and in some cases interpreting the science in such a way to conform to your world view. (Weren’t some of the earliest posts by David and Gavin objections to your interpretation of relativity?) I think that if there is something we can learn from the history of science, it is that the nature doesn’t care what human being thinks. Quantum mechanics and relativity are certainly examples. When the physicists found the their old world view was wrong, they didn’t commit intellectual suicides. They embraced the new reality and that made the science richer. I find it liberating that the nature doesn’t care what human thinks, because it means that the nature doesn’t favor anyone. This is the reason that I don’t feel disadvantaged to do science as a non-Westerner, even though the modern science originated in the West. (There was a time when Japanese scientists were considered to lack originality and all they could do is to imitate. And lack of philosophy was attributed to it. But I think it was mostly proven wrong, I’m happy to say.) We can all appreciate the beauty of nature. But why do I have to give the credit to the god, and Christian god in particular?           (written by Hi)

jlb — Remember the etiquette on this weblog.  Saucy is okay.  Respectful is required. Bigoted is not okay, either against science or against religion.  I will use delete, though I have scarcely ever had to do so.  Besides below, a couple of earlier responses to Hi are here and here (by the poet).

Thanks! Great Impetus for My Work, & One More Question for Physics

[If you’re interest in Michael Polanyi, who was a world-class physical chemist and an Anglican philosopher of science who in about 1955 wrote Personal Knowledge, a paean of praise to the beauty and precision of science and at the same time a systematic deconstruction of old-style scientific “objectivism,” inspiring Kuhn but much better (if you ask me), go to per caritatem and check out a number of lucid Polanyi posts there — and here.]

I have a new motto for this post, from the Cartalk guys, who claimed to be (supposedly) quoting Albert Einstein! “Once you can convert all the matter in the universe into something that is nothing, the rest is easy….” The mass-energy questions asked below convert into matter-field questions, and these ain’t little questions!

This weblog and the lively conversations we’ve had here over the past few months have propelled me into some intense productivity on my own work. Thanks!

I’ve been working on several scholarly essays concerning Plato’s Ion and Aristotle’s Poetics, and once these are scheduled for publication, I’ll start resuming my posts here on Plato’s Ion. (This just gives you some more time to absorb the ideas on literary theory in the Ion posts — and in the good stuff under “Pages.” Of course I’ll welcome comments on what’s already here, in the meantime.)

Then there’s everything I’ve learned from the physicists — and from the molecular biologist! — who’ve engaged so generously with me here: on quantum mechanics (for 60 fact-packed pages!), on Plato, on the paradigm shift from Newton to Einstein, on the soul, on method in science, on “ink-and-paper vs Hamlet,” and on “gnomes with shovels“!

I’ll have a posting for you soon on the Higgs Boson, detailing what you’ve taught me and how I want to use it in a book for general readership about the science/cultural studies divide. It will also be about how we might find our way through this dreadful “social construction of reality” impasse, an impasse I believe arises strictly within the context of our own Anglo-American intellectual tradition — and because of its particular and distinctive precoccupations.

Our habitual framework of assumptions leads us into misunderstandings when we are assimilating thought that evolved on the Continent, concerning what is being claimed (our word) about “reality” and what “exists.” (The denial of “an external world” emerges during the assimilation into our context, I take it, and does not occur in the original Continental contexts, so when Sokal and Brimont attacked some prominent French thinkers, they were the wrong targets if “social constructionism” was the enemy.)

But right now, until my Higgs Boson post appears, I’d like to address another question to those in the sciences, a question which arises for me when I am contemplating the standard theory, and especially the Higgs field, and remembering what Gavin and David said about the “medium,” as it were, through which electro-magnetic and other quantum waves propagate (i.e. “the universe,” they seemed to say).

Now, it seems that finding the Higgs boson would help to clarify what “mass” is. I get that. But what in the world, then, is “energy”?

In other words, is it the case that the question of what energy “is” has been clarified already for the physics community?

Like, for instance, is it true that even where we have those “vacuums” out in “deep space,” nonetheless all of it is thought to be “filled” with the Higgs energy field? And, I gather, with all of the other quantum energy “waves,” which in a sense seem to diffuse away into infinity? (This is why wave-particle duality is observed even when the wave is split and sent over large distances before being recombined and measured, and why entanglement phenomena manifest even when the pair of particles are separated by very large distances?)

And all of this leads me to the whole question of “being without any mass,” like photons. What does “massless” mean? How can a photon be massless and yet manifest as a particle? How can a massless particle make a “ping” on a screen? (Or is that just what happens with electrons and other particles with mass?)

Energy, I’m assuming (right?), is by definition without mass, since energy converts into mass, and vice versa. E = Mc^2.

And, okay, I’m sorry, but if energy is massless and if it fills “empty” space, in what sense then are we still saying that the science of physics is an empirical science? A science that deals strictly with “physical reality”? How can energy be taken to be a physical and empirical thing, if it has no mass and takes up no space in any material sense? (At least until it is converted into a particle with mass….) Yes, I know that you have plenty of evidence that energy exists, but how is it a material thing? And if it is, then how are we defining material or physical reality these days? (Not the way it’s done on some of the science blogs….)

Okay, I’ve done some research and I see mass vs energy comes down to the difference between fermions and bosons? So deep space is filled with a boson wave field?

Thanks for any insights and any good links you can give me on this — which I realize to be the sort of question that only a humanist, most likely, would ask…. (Maybe this kind of consideration is the reason that it seems more physicists today self-identify as “Platonists” or as “positivists,” than as “realists”?) P. S. Found a fascinating piece on mass-energy equivalence in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — see the section on Philosophical Interpretations.

And don’t suppose, my gentle readers, that I’ve forgotten about the “soul,” either, or about the issues involving theism vis-a-vis science. I’m just getting everything “set up” here, to tackle these inquiries you’ve made, with some degree of precision….