Category: Notes

Boozer on SLS


At, R. D. Boozer argues that the Space Launch System (SLS), NASA’s planned massive rocket,  is a potential boondoggle, diverting NASA’s resources from cutting-edge space development in favor of workhorse rocketry that would be better developed by companies like SpaceX:

“SLS is so expensive that there is no money left to develop the huge payloads it is designed to carry. Thus, it is often referred to as “The Rocket to Nowhere.”As mentioned in a report from Booz-Allen-Hamilton, this rocket will probably only successfully meet goals for the first 3 to 5 years. Thereafter, the SLS will produce only a very few (if any) exorbitantly expensive flights, after an extravagant amount already spent.

If SLS and Orion were scrapped and a fraction of their funds applied to the SpaceX or ULA launchers, NASA could use the resulting savings to produce needed technologies for deep-space exploration. The agency cannot currently develop those technologies because the SLS/Orion costs leave no money for these other projects. Those needed technologies could include radiation protection, artificial-spin gravity, advanced space-propulsion systems and in-space filling stations — all of which are now on the back burner.”

Read here.


Libresco on Dawkins

At First Things, Leah Libresco reviews Richard Dawkins:

Richard Dawkins’ An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist invites comparisons with C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy. Both are memoirs by thinkers who seemed a little surprised to end up as apologists, much less as writers whom growing numbers would credit with their conversion or de-conversion. Unfortunately, there is much more joy in Lewis’ work than there is wonder in Dawkins’.

Read here.

Coyne on Christianity and the History of Science; Hannam & Berezow Respond

Jerry Coyne is contesting the thesis that Christianity played a crucial role in the rise of the enterprise of modern science. At Real Clear Science, Alex Berezow & James Hannam (The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution) offer a response:

“Historians have long realized that the great conflict between science and religion is a myth. But it continues to be an article of faith among the New Atheists. In contrast to his views on evolution, Dr. Coyne thinks that he can ignore the evidence from history and disregard the settled view of experts in the field. But, being a scholar and a rational man, we’re sure that he will change his mind if shown to be wrong.”

(Read here.)

Although all of Coyne’s points demonstrate simplistic thinking regarding the history of science and religion, for me, two in particular stuck out:

“7. If religion promulgated the search for knowledge, it also gave rise to erroneous, revelation-based “scientific” conclusions that surely impeded progress. Those include creation ex nihilo, the Great Flood, a geocentric universe, and so on.”

Except that nothing in science whatsoever has disproven creation ex nihilo—that doctrine God created the entire universe out of nothing, rather than by working with preexisting, eternal matter, as most pre-Judeo-Christian cosmologies assumed. Coyne may perhaps be confusing creation ex nihilo with a fundamentalist sort of special creation, but the latter is not the teaching of the Church, although it has been a not-uncommon opinion (Catholics are, in fact, free to think for themselves on this question). As for the Great Flood or geocentrism, aside from the fact that Galileo ended up living out his days under a fairly comfortable house arrest, it is not clear how either of those held up “scientific progress”—indeed, other thinkers continued studying and writing about the heliocentric vs. geocentric models contemporaneously with the Galileo affair, without trouble from the Church—mostly because the hostility between the Church and Galileo was exacerbated by the strong-willed personalities involved, and not an innate hostility to new scientific ideas. Once the evidence supported it, the model was accepted, and the Church’s bungling of the Galileo case became an atypical quirk of history.

“8.  Early scientists were Christians, at least in the west, because everyone was a Christian then.  You would have been an apostate, or burnt at the stake, had you denied that faith.  If you’re going to give Christianity credit for science, you have to give it credit for nearly everything, including art, architecture, music, and so on.”

Okay, if you insist.


Feser on the Soul

Edward Feser answers some questions on the nature of the soul:

Remember, the Thomist allows that in the intellect’s normal state, corporeal activity is necessary for its operation — it’s just not sufficient for it, which is why intellectual activity is essentially incorporeal.  Even if corporeal activity were necessary full stop, and not just under normal conditions, it wouldn’t follow that the Thomist’s arguments for the intellect’s immateriality are undermined.  Hence it wouldn’t follow that the soul does not survive death.  What would follow is only that it would be inert after death.  So the reader is just mistaken to think that the dependence of intellectual activity on the brain threatens to ‘ruin [the] argument… for its survival after bodily death.’  At most it threatens the claim that the intellect can function after death.  A proponent of the ‘soul sleep’ theory of personal immortality could happily accept that, and argue that the intellect functions again only when the body is restored to it at the resurrection.

Now of course, the Thomist does not accept the “soul sleep” theory.  He holds that the intellect does function after death.  How can this be?  Remember that I said that corporeal activity is necessary for the intellect’s operation under normal conditions.  But as Aquinas argues in the article linked to above, it is not necessary full stop.  The intellect functions one way when it is in its normal state — that is, when conjoined to the body — but in another way under the abnormal circumstances when we are no longer ‘in the flesh.’”


A Little Nothing for the Weekend

A discussion at First Things.

First, in “Response to ‘Fifty Shades of Nothing‘”, John Leslie and Robert Lawrence Kuhn respond to Ed Feser’s previous critique of their volume, The Mystery of Existence: Why Is There Anything At All?

“Ed’s criticism is an important one. We could plead that our volume tries to cover all the main ways, going back to Plato and ending with scientists such as Stephen Hawking, of reacting to the fact that there’s a world instead of utter emptiness. Philosophy, theology, cosmology, physics, were all competing for room on its pages. Still, why so little about classical theism? Why such ‘short shrift’ (Ed’s description) as calling classical theism ‘puzzling’?”

Read here.

And Feser responds, “Why Is There Anything At All? It’s Simple“:

“Now, while our editors are of course the best experts on their mission for the volume, I would respectfully disagree with them about the relevance of classical theism to that mission. For the philosophical dispute between classical and modern forms of theism is, I would argue, exactly on point. And when we understand why, we will also see that the question whether God exists is in no way eclipsed by the question why there is something rather than nothing—on the contrary, the existence of God, as classical theism understands God, is (so the classical theist would argue) the only possible answer in principle to that question. Let me explain.”

Read here.

Mills on Stenger

At Real Clear Religion, Notre Dame’s M. Anthony Mills critiques Victor Stenger’s book, God and the Atom:

Stenger argues that, since its inception, atomism and atheism have gone hand in hand. To accept atomism, ancient or modern, is to accept atheism.

Such proclamations are familiar to those who worship at the altar of the “new atheism.” If Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens are its high priests, Stenger is minor nobility. A physicist, Stenger’s numerous books argue that modern science is, inexorably, shining light into the last crevices in which God has taken refuge. Anyone who disagrees is no “free thinker,” but an anti-scientific slave to authority and superstition.

But God and the Atom fails to deliver on its promise. Instead, it exemplifies some careless historical scholarship and a philosophical confusion that plagues new atheism generally. Is science a purely empirical discipline? In that case it would be ill equipped to answer non-empirical (for example, theological) questions. Or is science itself somehow metaphysical, providing definitive answers to age-old questions?

Stenger, like all new atheists, wants it both ways: atomism is a good theory because it is purely empirical; but it nevertheless licenses sweeping non-empirical judgments: atoms and void are all that exist.

Read here.

It is a tiresome yet neverending task for believers to point out that an empirical method like science cannot be used to evaluate nonempirical claim, so it’s simply a tautology to point out that science (as such) doesn’t and cannot discover God, because God is not an object in the universe available for scientific investigation. But as valid  as that point is, as devil’s advocate, I think that the skeptic’s real point is that he just doesn’t know what else besides science an be used to discover valid, objective truth—science is the only thing he knows of that works. Thus it’s time for religious defenders to move just beyond pointing out the logical failures of skeptical objections, and to start developing ways to show the validity of knowledge gathered beyond bare empirical science. One of the most fruitful ways of doing this, I think, is in showing that in order to do science at all one must beforehand accept a prescientific metaphysical and philosophical system that is very much supportive a theistic view of things. The task is to get the skeptics to examine their own presuppositions explicitly, rather than glide over them unconciously. We must point out the truth that without God, science is impossible.

Garbarino on Harris’ Challenge

Collin Garbarino at First Things is skeptical of New Atheist Sam Harris’ recent challenge offering $10,000 to anyone who “succesfully proves” his claim that morality can be based on atheistic scientific claims alone is false. Writes Garbarino:

“Sam Harris isn’t interested in furthering our understanding of the moral framework. This is a stunt. Unfortunately, it’s a stunt that will probably make him lots of money.”

Read here.

Triboluminescence in Afghanistan

Credit: M. Yon

My father was an Army pilot, and flew Chinook helicopters, the helicopter in this picture. The story, from NPR‘s Robert Krulwich Wonders describes lights that appear on certain occasions when Chinooks fly through the skies of Afghanistan:

“This isn’t a painting. It’s not from a movie. It’s not a strange astronomical event. This is real — what you can see when certain helicopters in Afghanistan touch down on sandy ground, raising dust, causing mysterious arcs of light to loop and dance through the air.”

The effect seems to be a case of triboluminescence: the light produced when the chemical bonds of certain substances are violently shorn under special conditions. Photographer Michael Yon, who captured the images, has dubbed the phenomenon the “The Kopp-Etchells Effect” after Cpl. Benjamin Kopp and Cpl. Joseph Etchells, American and British soldiers, respectively, who lost their lives serving in Afghanistan.

Read more here.


Image: Michael Yon

Sakimoto: “The Astronomer’s God”

At Ethika Politika:

“One reason I took up the pursuit of astronomy was that I wanted to understand everything in the Universe.  And, in that case, I meant everything.  I said that being an astronomer gave me the license to study anything at all, since everything is encompassed within the Universe.  But is it?”

Read here.

Feser on Kuhn on Nothing

It turns out, there’s still a lot you can say about nothing:

The wary reader might fear that what we have here is a rehash of Krauss’s unhappy speculations about “possible candidates for nothingness” in A Universe from Nothing (which I criticized in a review in First Things).   But that is not the case.  Krauss’s book gained notoriety even among some thinkers who share his atheism for its conceptual sloppiness, arrogance, and philosophically ill-informed flippancy.  Kuhn is neither conceptually sloppy, nor arrogant, nor flippant, nor philosophically ill-informed.  Nor does he share Krauss’s unreflective scientism.

[...] In any event, Kuhn does something Krauss tried but failed to do, which is to propose a philosophically interesting conception of a kind of “nothing” which is something less than what he calls “absolute” nothing or “Real Nothing.”

Read here.