Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Does Studying Theology Make Us Certain?

Those who are familiar with Thomas Aquinas know that he begins the Summa Theologica (his magnum opus) with the question as to how one can go about studying theology. In article two of that question, he asks whether theology is a science, and to answer, he makes a critical distinction so that he can answer that theology is, in one way at least, a science, thus making the Summa itself a work of science:

Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God.

In other words, theology is a science, Aquinas says, if we understand it as a sort of “subalternated” science which derives its first principles from another science. Unlike other subalterated sciences like music or optics, however, theology derives its first principles from a non-demonstrable science. Godfrey of Fontaines explains why this is so:

[I]f theology were truly and properly a science after the model of a subalternated science in relation to a subalternating one, it would be necessary that the principles of theology that are had in this life be certain by the certitude of evidence at least in regard to knowledge that such is the case, and it would be necessary that there would be knowledge of why it is the case in the science the blessed have of these principles . . . So, in order that theology be science and that not only would there be faith regarding the conclusion of theology as there is regarding the principles, then regarding its principles it is necessary that they be not only believed but be known and evident. For, the type of evidence the principles have will determine the parallel type of evidence that the conclusion will have. For although a conclusion may be drawn from principles that are only believed and the consequence or the necessity of the consequence can be scientifically known, still the consequent and its necessity cannot be known scientifically from such principles (Quodlibet, IV, q. 10, 1287).

In other words, we might call music or optics a subalternated science because it derives its first principles from another science (arithmetic or geometry), or is subjected to other more proper sciences. Thus, an optician may proceed to study optics without having proper knowledge of the first principles of his science, which are derived from geometry. However, the optician may study geometry and in doing so, gain a more perfect knowledge of optics. Optics is thus subordinated or subalternated to geometry, but not in such a way that prevents a more perfect knowledge of optics through gaining a more perfect knowledge of its first principles through the study of another science.

Theology, as Godfrey points out, is not like this. Theology is based on first principles which do not come from another human science which may be studied, but rather from the science which exists in the mind of God and is consequently beyond all human understanding. “Science,” Godfrey tells us, is “a sure habit possessing both the certitude of evidence and the certitude of conviction,” which theology can never have because it is based in principles which are not certain but accepted on faith. In contrast to science, faith, Godfrey writes, is “a sure habit having only the certitude of conviction, not the certitude of evidence.” Faith may be stronger than opinion (which lacks both the certitude of evidence and conviction), but for Godfrey, because theology rests on revealed first principles which cannot be proved, it can only be faith and never science.

Is there a difference between Thomas and Godfrey? Maybe, but on the subject of theology as science, perhaps they can be reconciled. Thomas, like Godfrey, knows that the first principles of theology rest on faith. Such principles like the Trinity, Incarnation, and Eschaton cannot be proved, only believed. For Thomas, belief comes as a gift not only of intellectual propositions, but the gift of an actual relationship with God. The object of faith, while not convincing to the non-believer, is actually more certain than sensory knowledge because it is a knowledge based not only on the discursive intellect, but also the affections (as elevated by the gifts of the Holy Spirit). However, from those first principles, rational and logical conclusions can be drawn which enhance the knowledge one has of the first principles, and on this, Thomas and Godfrey are not in such disagreement. Godfrey writes:

So, when theology is posited as science, it is necessary that its principles become in some way evident and known or understood. In fact, evidence has to be of a kind that respects the excellence of its subject matter and the weakness of the human knower. Thus, to one instructed in theology, it is much more evident than to the simple layman that Christ, God and man, has risen, and how this is possible and not impossible. . . Therefore, even though such things are not as evident as are the principles of other sciences because of their lack of proportion to our intellect, still they are known by a kind of evidence that is sufficient. . . Concerning he kind of knowledge we have in theology, Augustine, in Book XIV of his De Trinitate, says: “Many of the faithful are not strong in this science, even though they are strong in the faith itself. For it is one thing to know what a man must believe in order to gain the blessed life; it is another thing to know how that which is believed may help the pious and be defended against the impious.”

So, both Aquinas and Godfrey show us that by studying theology, we are not making scientific arguments that will be convincing as science to the non-believer. However, by studying theology scientifically, that is, by logically deducing conclusions from revealed first principles, we do get a sort of science which is important, not because it makes our beliefs more convincing to the non-believer, but because we become more convinced, even in light of the opposition of non-believers. Thus, theology does enhance knowledge if conducted scientifically, even if we still might not be able to call theology a proper science.

This seems to me incredibly important today when so many believers, when faced with a materialist and empiricist scientific worldview, feel the need either to doubt or abandon their faith or to withdraw into a sectarian, anti-scientific stance. For this latter group, recovering the Medieval concept of theology as a science can help Christians engage the scientific community in a spirit of dialogue rather than polemics, and by incorporating the sciences into the study of theology, they may actually become better believers.

Anthropological Musings on the Painfully Hot Ghost Chili

Last Wednesday, the Hub and I ventured over to Inman Square’s East Coast Grill for their legendary Hell Night. For four days out of the year, the talented chefs at East Coast prepare a menu to tantalize and terrify the taste buds. Habenero-infused vodka, Chile Chimichurri steaks, oysters drenched in hot sauce, and a dozen other spicy options ranging from one to nine chili peppers grace the menu. The star of the night, however, is the pasta from hell. This pasta, made from the world’s hottest ghost chilies, has been featured on the craze foodie hit Man vs. Food, where even the daring Adam Richman could only take about two bites. This pasta is hot. And I ordered it.

You are required to sign a waver before you dig in, which is all part of the fun. But after the first bite, the most excruciating pain sets in, the kind of pain that sends tears down your cheek as you dig your high heel into your calf to distract your dendrites from the horror taking place in your mouth. Now, don’t get me wrong. I live for spicy food. I eat sriracha on everything. I nibble on raw jalapenos while I cook spicy Mexican food. I have successfully taken an adolescent dare to drink an entire bottle of Tabasco. And by the time reached the half-way mark on my pasta from hell, I was doubled over in pain and had to stop. But I took it home, and the next night suffered through the rest (armed, of course, with a full bottle of antacids for the heart burn that came later that night).

When I recovered, I started wondering why in the world I freely and intentionally chose to do something so painful, not just once, but two nights in a row. Everydaythomist that I am, I toyed with the question of whether my actions constituted daring, one of the vices against fortitude that inclines the appetite toward danger in ways contrary to reason.

Turns out, scientists are doing research on this very question. A few months ago, the NYTimes featured an article on the pleasure and pain of chili peppers based on the research from Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania:

[Rozin]has evidence for what he calls benign masochism. For example, he tested chili eaters by gradually increasing the pain, or, as the pros call it, the pungency, of the food, right up to the point at which the subjects said they just could not go further. When asked after the test what level of heat they liked the best, they chose the highest level they could stand, “just below the level of unbearable pain.” As Delbert McClinton sings (about a different line of research), “It felt so good to hurt so bad.”

Rozin disagrees with theories that argue for an evolutionary advantage to eating hot peppers, say, for example, by arguing that they lower blood pressure or provide some other such advantage in health. In fact, Rozin thinks there actually is not an evolutionary advantage at all to such acts:

No one knows for sure why humans would find pleasure in pain, but Dr. Rozin suggests that there’s a thrill, similar to the fun of riding a roller coaster. “Humans and only humans get to enjoy events that are innately negative, that produce emotions or feelings that we are programmed to avoid when we come to realize that they are actually not threats,” he said. “Mind over body. My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not.” And it says, hand me another jalapeño.

One of the key observations here is that no other mammal likes hot peppers. And from this observation, Rozin and others draw an interesting conclusion: the human taste for painfully hot peppers says something important about what it means to be human:

[A]s Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, puts it, “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”

That’s from Dr. Bloom’s new book, “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like,” in which he addresses the general nature of human pleasure, and some very specific, complicated pleasures. Some, like eating painfully spicy food, are accidental, at least in their specificity. A complicated mind is adaptive, but love of chilies is an accident.

And that is what I celebrate behind my respirator as my son and I dice habaneros, accidental pleasures. A taste for chilies has no deep meaning, no evolutionary value. It’s just a taste for chilies. I might add, though, that since it takes such a complicated brain and weird self-awareness to enjoy something that is inherently not enjoyable, only the animal with the biggest brain and the most intricate mind can do it.

Take heart, chili heads. It’s not dumb to eat the fire, it’s a sign of high intelligence.

I find this a fascinating and largely compelling contribution to philosophical anthropology. Whereas for most animals, pleasure is a function of biology, humans have a lot more flexibility. They can, in many ways, choose what it is that brings them pleasure, even things that go against biology or evolutionary advantage. That is, human beings are masters of their actions largely because they are masters of their pleasure.

This means that for human beings in particular, morality cannot simply be a matter of examining nature and drawing normative conclusions. Human beings are greater than the sum of their biological parts, and the objects from which they draw pleasure cannot be reduced to merely a biochemical neural reaction.

When it comes to chili peppers and roller coasters, the human ability to find pleasure in biologically unpleasant things may not have much moral consequence, but in other areas the question may be more serious. For example, a friend sent me an Atlantic article on porn addiction which also examines the recent prevalence of anal sex. I hesitate to even quote the article on my blog due to how explicit it was, but I do think the following revelation from the author is significant:

Never was this made plainer to me than during a one-night stand with a man I had actually known for quite a while. A polite, educated fellow with a beautiful Lower East Side apartment invited me to a perfunctory dinner right after his long-term girlfriend had left him. We quickly progressed to his bed, and things did not go well. He couldn’t stay aroused. Over the course of the tryst, I trotted out every parlor trick and sexual persona I knew. I was coquettish then submissive, vocal then silent, aggressive then downright commandeering; in a moment of exasperation, he asked if we could have anal sex. I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, “Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.” This was, perhaps, the greatest moment of sexual honesty I’ve ever experienced—and without hesitation, I complied. This encounter proves an unpleasant fact that does not fit the feminist script on sexuality: pleasure and displeasure wrap around each other like two snakes.

If anal sex is unpleasant, why do it? Human intentionality, that is, human choice, can transform unpleasant actions and unpleasant objects into pleasure. In Dependent Rational Animals, Alistair McIntyre made the somewhat surprising claim that ethics could not be separated from biology. Ghost chilies and anal sex remind us that morality also cannot be reduced to biology. Human intentionality transcends what we are biologically conditioned to do.

Natural law scholars, especially those rooted in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, debate whether natural law should be grounded in a “metaphysical biology” which assumes that the normative “ought” can be drawn from the biological “is.” The more we learn about biology, the more important biology becomes in our moral reflections, and this, I think, is a good thing. Biology reminds us that we are creatures, not just spirits. It reminds us how much we share with our non-human animal cousins. But, while biology can tell us what it means to be “animal” (which humans are), it cannot tell us what it means to be human. In Aristotelian parlance, our human species is derived from our genus (animal) and differentia (rational). And that differentia does a lot to separate us from our non-human animal cousins. It does not totally separate us, but it separates us enough to give us pause as we realize that our animal nature cannot explain the many perplexing questions regarding why we do what we do. Now, if you will excuse me, I need another antacid.

The Challenge of Naturalism

At an ethics colloquium this week, I heard a professor tell a story (which I hope is okay to repeat here since both the storyteller and the subject of the story are anonymous) of a former theology student who had recently written with proud news of an upcoming publication on the topic of liturgy. She went on to tell him that she was flourishing in her job as the campus minister at a Catholic school. She had recently gotten into spiritual direction, which was going okay, despite the fact that she no longer believed in God, and overall, she was very happy with her life and career.

Wait. . . she no longer believes in God? In America, this is not as rare as you might think. While Europe is becoming increasingly more secularized, and the churches are becoming more and more empty, in the US, something else is happening. Externally, we are a very religious nation with a high percentage of churchgoers (about 47% of Americans attend a weekly religious service as opposed to about 20% in Europe). Nevertheless, there are signs that we are a nation a lot like this professor’s former theology student—involved in the act of religion without the corresponding belief. As Terence Nichols puts it in his very fine book The Sacred Cosmos:

Supernatural realities such as miracles, angels, afterlife, a sacred cosmos, and so on are rarely broached, at least in mainline Protestant denominations (and less and less so in Roman Catholic churches). God has become distant from everyday life. People may still believe in God, got to church, even pray, but without deep conviction. . .(8)

For Nichols, the problem is naturalism, “the belief that nature is all that exists, and that everything can be explained by natural causes and therefore by science. There is no nonmaterial reality, such as God.” The problem, he says, is deep and

. . . originates further back—with the separation of God from nature, a split that began in the late medieval and early modern period. This resulted in the (perceived) separation of god from everyday life that is so characteristic of contemporary secular societies. . .Ancient and medieval Christians lived in a sacred cosmos and saw nature as a window or sacrament that expressed the beauty, majesty, and glory of God. . . Sacraments make God present and invite the believer into a sharing of God’s presence. But for a sacrament to work, there has to be some similarity, some unity. . . If nature is seen sacramentally, rather than as an object to be investigated and used, it also can mediate the presence of God. Seen sacramentally, nature is a sacred cosmos, for whatever mediates God’s presence is sacred (9).

Instead of a sacred cosmos infused with the supernatural, what we have now, according to Nichols, is a universe completely subject to natural laws, where even religion (to quote E.O. Wilson), is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences. This metaphysical naturalism is the greatest challenge Christianity faces in the contemporary world. As Nichols puts it,

For if nature is all that exists, there cannot be any reality that is greater than and independent of nature. Nor can there be any hope of an afterlife, nor any means to really transcend our natural condition. The consoling grace of god, which frees us from sin, addictions, selfishness, hopelessness, and lovelessness, is, for naturalists, a fiction.

Must we then, as Christians, be anti-science in order to avoid the dangers poised by naturalism? Not at all. Christians have long held (rooted especially in the Thomistic tradition) that scientific naturalism is perfectly appropriate for the natural sciences. Science can tell us much of the world—how it originated, how it fits together, where it is headed. The laws of nature that scientists study are laws created by God and hence are very, very good.

But just because a scientist is committed to scientific naturalism, she need not commit herself also to metaphysical naturalism, i.e., the belief that these natural laws are all that exist. More specifically, a Christian evolutionary biologist very committed to the principles of natural selection need not conclude that simply because evolution exist, God does not. As Nichols points out, some of the greatest scientists were also Christian (Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Pascal, Max Plank). The problem is not evolution (or any other natural “law”), but rather, when evolution becomes an all-encompassing philosophy. Science and theology are meant to be complementary, not antagonistic.

No, the solution for Christians, what Christians need to do if they are to survive the naturalist challenge, is not reject science (and hence the “natural”), but rather, they need to recover the supernatural. In a Christianity Today article, Hwa Yung writes on this,

A careful reading of the Bible and the sheer weight of empirical evidence eventually brought me back to a supernatural Christianity. In this, I found myself out of sync with much of Western theology. Here liberals were at least consistent, but not evangelicals. Most liberals denied the supernatural both in the Bible and in the present; evangelicals fought tooth and nail to defend the miraculous in the Bible, but rarely could cope with it in real life.

Now, Yung is writing about the recovery of a more charismatic Pentecostal form of Christianity, which I am not arguing for here, but his basic point is sound. Christians need to recover the idea of the miraculous, the realm beyond science, the invisible, the graced. To describe how this might take place liturgically or in other Christian practices is beyond the scope of one blog post (though I would love to hear your thoughts), but at the very least, Christians can recover the supernatural in conversation. We can admit that knowledge of God is beyond the capacity of reason. The natural world can lead us towards God, but true knowledge is a supernatural gift, elevating the intellect beyond what it is naturally capable of.

We can also admit that simply because knowledge of God is a gift, and one which we do not experience fully in this life (see 1 John 3:2 and 1 Corinthians 13:12 for when we can expect full knowledge), we can still do theology. In other words, we can still speculate about God, and even do so “scientifically.” Thomas Aquinas tells us

Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God (I, Q. 1, art. 2).

For Aquinas, the object of this science is God, and its principles are the articles of faith (things like the Incarnation and the Trinity). Sacred Scripture is important, but is of itself neither the object nor the principle of theology:

Such are the Trinity of Persons in Almighty God [The Leonine Edition reads: The Three Persons, the omnipotence of God, etc.], the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, and the like: and these are distinct articles of faith. On the other hand certain things in Holy Writ are proposed to our belief, not chiefly on their own account, but for the manifestation of those mentioned above: for instance, that Abraham had two sons, that a dead man rose again at the touch of Eliseus’ bones, and the like, which are related in Holy Writ for the purpose of manifesting the Divine mystery or the Incarnation of Christ: and such things should not form distinct articles (II-II, Q. 1, art. 6).

And in the end, although theology is a matter of disputation (I, Q. 1, art. 8), it ultimately does not get us knowledge of God, but only a certain knowledge of God’s effects, and how those effect pertain to our salvation:

Although we cannot know in what consists the essence of God, nevertheless in this science we make use of His effects, either of nature or of grace, in place of a definition, in regard to whatever is treated of in this science concerning God; even as in some philosophical sciences we demonstrate something about a cause from its effect, by taking the effect in place of a definition of the cause.

Ultimately, the point of theology is not to render God understandable or to possess God, but rather, to seek a mysterious God in love. And when we talk of God (or do theology), it should be this gifted love that we communicate, especially to our friends in the natural sciences. We do not have to make Christianity “natural” in order to speak to scientists. We need rather to speak confidently, humbly, and reverently about the supernatural, and listen to what the sciences have to say about the natural. Maybe, with a little grace, we can actually get a conversation going in which the scientist learns a little about grace and eternal life, and the Christian learns a little about the world.

And this brings us back to naturalism. In terms of religion, naturalism pushes us to make all matters of faith matters of natural science. The Bible becomes an anthropological and sociological document, sacraments become merely rituals, God becomes an idea, and the afterlife becomes a naiveté. Christianity becomes a voluntary association that anybody can “do,” like the girl in the opening story of this post, rather than a graced invitation into a relationship with God. Terence Nichols expresses well the appropriate Christian response:

The greatest gifts of grace are faith, hope, and the love of God (1 Cor. 13) which, Paul tells us, is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that is given to us (Rom. 5:5). It is this love that allows us to love others, even enemies, and that characterizes the converted Christian life. Such a love is beyond our natural abilities. . . Christianity is not about rules and laws, guilt and fear of punishment, or extrinsic rewards. It is about grace: the experience of God’s transforming love and power in our lives that elevates and perfects our natural abilities and allows us to do more that we thought possible. In this sense, the life of every fully converted Christian moves beyond naturalism. It is god’s grace that makes the Christian practice of everyday life possible. And it is this same power of grace that one day will bring us to the resurrection, the ultimate transformation of nature, and to eternal life with God (226-27).

Some New Years Articles of Note

If you are a regular follower of this blog, you have probably noted that the last few months have not been particularly fruitful. Defending a dissertation and traveling around the country for job interviews make blogging difficult. However, I hope to return to the blogosphere in a few days, but until then, here are some recent articles I have read that you may find of interest:

1. Can’t Kick Bad Habits? Blame the Brain. This is a short and easy to read piece exploring the neural underpinnings of habit formation, which all virtue ethicists should be attentive to. In brief, dopamine is the neurotransmitter which seems to play the biggest role in habit formation by conditioning the brain to seek out certain pleasurable activities again and again (like a glass of wine after work). Breaking a bad habit seems to be less about imposing rational control over one’s emotional reaction to a source of pleasure and more about putting oneself in the right situation where the cause of the bad habit is not readily available: “What you want to be thinking about is, ‘What is it in my environment that is triggering this behavior?'” says Nordgren. “You have to guard yourself against it.” Here’s a great quote from the article:

“People have this self-control hubris, this belief they can handle more than they can,” says Nordgren, who studies the tug-of-war between willpower and temptation. In one experiment, he measured whether heavy smokers could watch a film that romanticizes the habit — called “Coffee and Cigarettes” — without taking a puff. Upping the ante, they’d be paid according to their level of temptation: Could they hold an unlit cigarette while watching? Keep the pack on the table? Or did they need to leave the pack in another room?

Smokers who’d predicted they could resist a lot of temptation tended to hold the unlit cigarette — and were more likely to light up than those who knew better than to hang onto the pack, says Nordgren. He now is beginning to study how recovering drug addicts deal with real-world temptations.

2. Searching for the Source of Our Fountains of Courage. This New York Times article outlines research which will also be important for ethicists. One of the most interesting parts of the article describes a woman with a rare congenital syndrome leaving her completely fearless, “raising the question of whether it’s better to conquer one’s fears, or to never feel them in the first place.”

As Justin Feinstein, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Iowa, and his colleagues describe in Current Biology, the otherwise normal SM is incapable of being spooked.

She claimed to fear snakes and spiders, and maybe she did in her pre-disease childhood, but when the researchers took her to an exotic pet store, they were astonished to see that not only did she not avoid the snakes and spiders, she was desperate to hold them close.

The researchers took SM to a haunted house, and she laughed at the scary parts and blithely made the monster-suited employees jump. She was shown clips from famous horror films like “The Silence of Lambs” and “Halloween,” and she showed no flickers of fright.

This fearlessness may be fine in the safety of one’s living room, but it turns out that SM makes her own horror films in real life. She walks through bad neighborhoods alone at night, approaches shady strangers without guile, and has been repeatedly threatened with death.

“We have an individual who’s constantly putting herself into harm’s way,” said Mr. Feinstein. “If we had a million SMs walking around, the world would be a total mess.”

Yet more scientific evidence for the importance of Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean.

3. The Unborn Paradox: “No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.” 20% of pregnancies end in abortion. Yet millions of women will spend tens of thousands of dollars on reproductive therapies this year. In the meantime, only 1% of pregnancies will end in adoption. A great basis for making an ethical argument on the adoption imperative.

4. Philosophy Lives: Who hasn’t seen the following quote from esteemed physicist Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (on yet another important topic I failed to blog about in the last few months) from their new book The Grand Design:

“[Just] as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit. Because there is a law of gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.”

While Hawking and Mlodinow argue that these newest developments in physics signal the final death knell for philosophy and natural theology, John Haldane argues that “at its most abstract, theoretical physics leaves ordinary empirical science behind and enters the sphere of philosophy, where it becomes vulnerable to refutation by reason.”

5. Changing Our Minds: An overview of the implications of digital technology for an ethic of virtue. Heavy attention is given to the vice of curiosity, which Paul Griffiths has brought back in vogue recently, but also an interesting treatment of the virtue of recollection. I love the conclusion:

The findings of science as to the effect of Internet use on the human brain should impel us to dust off some of these neglected ideas and see what they have to say about the problem, and maybe come up with some new ideas of our own in the process. As Lisa Fullam noted in these pages (“Thou Shalt,” April 24, 2009), long years of treating morality as a laundry list of mostly sexual shalt-nots has crippled authentic moral thinking, and moral thinking is exactly what is needed to navigate the dramatic transformations of the digital revolution without damaging our very selfhood. We need to identify and describe not only the shalt-nots of the age, but also the shalts: recollection, mindfulness, interiority, awareness. Whatever you prefer to call it, it’s what’s needed to keep Google from making us stupid. Not brain surgery, but virtue.

I hope to do a real blog soon but in the meantime, what articles have you been reading that everydaythomist should be attentive to?

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

I just finished listening to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Yes, I said listening. Living in Boston, you walk everywhere and I have tried to maximize my efficiency in my scholarly pursuits by using that walking time (up to three hours each day) by listening to audiobooks. Some books are more difficult to listen to than others. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was one of the easier ones.

Most generally, the book (or “essay,” as Kuhn calls it in the preface) is a work in the philosophy of science which is trying to explain how scientific knowledge, and more specifically, scientific theory, develops. Kuhn is adamant that scientific theories do not emerge as the product of a mere accumulation of scientific facts and data. Rather, new theories emerge as products of changing circumstances and and a new intellectual milieu. New theories are the expressions of a new way of seeing, of perceiving the world.

The framework in which a scientist perceives the world is what Kuhn calls a paradigm, and a shift in perception leading to a new way of perceiving the world is called a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift is the result of an anomaly, a failure of a paradigm to explain certain phenomena. For example, in the Ptolemaic universe, the solar system was made up of a series of concentric circles with Earth as its center and the planets moving in perfect circles around the earth. This was a paradigm, a way of seeing the world. According to this way of seeing the world, Mars appears to go backwards in the night sky, what astronomers call retrograde motion. This discrepancy in observed astronomical data could only be explained with the development of a new heliocentric (Copernicus) solar system with elliptical orbits (Kepler). This paradigm shift is literally a new way of seeing the solar system and indeed the entire universe. The knowledge that Mars is not actually going backwards is not just the accumulation of new knowledge but a new mode of perception.

Kuhn basic insight is a psychological one–the expectations we bring into our observations influences our conclusions. He cites an interesting experiment in which subjects were quickly shown the playing cards of ordinary deck except for certain cards in which the suit of a certain color was exchanged for its opposite. So, for example, a subject might be shown a red three of clubs or a black king of hearts. The subjects overwhelmingly identified the card according to color–what they expected to see. So instead of correctly identifying the card as a king of hearts (despite its black color), the subjects would say “king of spades,” changing the suit according to what they expected to see. The more they were exposed to the anomalous card, the more uncertain they would become, but at first, what they saw matched their expectations, or in Kuhn’s language, their paradigm–black curvy suits are spades, not hearts, and are identified accordingly. The moral: our expectations shape what we see. Two scientists immersed in two different paradigms can observe the same phenomena and actually see two totally different phenomena.

Scientific knowledge is a lot like this, according to Kuhn. New scientific knowledge and new theories are not just the result of an increase in knowledge (though this is certainly a part of it, as more refined tools for observation are developed). But to even develop new tools, we have to know what it is that we are measuring. So new knowledge is not just the result of better tools, but rather, the result of shifts in perception, the ability to see what we once thought was a duck as a rabbit, to cite the example Kuhn himself uses. In another example, Kuhn cites an experiment where a person wears certain glasses which flip her vision, causing her to see everything upside down. Within a few minutes, her vision adapts, allowing her to see everything right side up. A person wearing the inverting lenses and a person not wearing the inverting lenses would then see the world in exactly the same way despite the fact that each had two opposite retinal impressions (one right side up, the other upside down). If the person were to take off the inverting lenses, at first, she would see everything upside down again, until her vision re-adapted. At this point, she and the person who had never had the inverting lenses on would see two different things (one right side up, the other upside down), despite having the same retinal impressions.

What Kuhn wants us to take away from the text is that there is no such thing as purely objective or purely neutral observational language. Scientists don’t get to claim that they just “examine the facts.” The “facts” are always products of perception. Some may call this relativism, but at least at this point, I would disagree. I think its a nice way of introducing epistemic humility into the sciences.

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