Category: Philosophy

Profile of Polkinghorne

Discover offers a look at Anglican priest and particle physicist John Polkinghorne:

“When he describes his line of work, John Polkinghorne jests, he encounters “more suspicion than a vegetarian butcher.” For the particle physicist turned Anglican priest, dissonance comes with the territory. Science parses the concrete: the structure of the atom and the workings of the brain. Religion confronts the intangible: questions about ethics and the purpose of life. Taken literally, the biblical story of Genesis contradicts modern cosmology and evolutionary biology in full.

Yet 21 years ago, in a move that made many eyes roll, Polkinghorne began working to unite the two sides by seeking a mechanism that would explain how God might act in the physical world. Now that work has met its day of reckoning. At a series of meetings at Oxford University last July and September, timed to celebrate Polkinghorne’s 80th birthday, physicists and theologians presented their answers to the questions he has so relentlessly pursued. Do any physical theories allow room for God to influence human actions and events? And, more controversially, is there any concrete evidence of God’s hand at work in the physical world?”

Read here.

Carroll on the Philosophy of Nature

William Carroll writes at Public Discourse (“The Limits of Life: -1359712483qyBBiology and the Philosophy of Nature“):

‘For some time, astrobiologists have been studying what are called extremophiles, organisms that live in extreme conditions. Do we get closer to understanding the origin of life the more we advance in our knowledge of life at its frontiers?

It is precisely such a question that is properly in the domain of the philosophy of nature. It would be of considerable benefit for biologists and other natural scientists to become acquainted with the insights this discipline offers. The philosophy of nature is a more general science of nature than any of the diverse empirical sciences. It depends upon the various natural sciences to understand nature, but the philosophy of nature concerns topics that are not specific to any one of the sciences, but common to them all: the nature of change and time, how physical entities are unities (as distinct from mere heaps of elements), and what the differences are between the living and the non-living.’

Read here.

Martin on Sheed on Sanity

Catholic World Report offers an interview with Hampton University’s Dr. Joseph Martin about Frank Sheed, the Catholic writer, and his conviction that reason finds its fulfillment in the Faith:

Sheed’s apologetic anthem was animated by a counter-rhetoric of Christian Realism, one he grounded in a bass line of “Sanity.” With the onset of modernity Christians were faced with the accusation they dealt in an unreal idealism – pie-in-the-sky sentimentalism, versus real life. Sheed cried “foul”, turning the charge on its head. Christian Faith isn’t escapism: it provides the one alternative that conveys a convincing narrative. And it is the Catholic Church, he maintained, despite centuries of hypocrisies and failings, that remains the custodian of the Christian Gospel, and is thus the rightful home of the “honest lover of truth.”

“Nothing is rightly seen save in the totality to which it belongs; no part of the universe is rightly seen save in relation to the whole,” Sheed explained. “But the universe cannot be seen as a whole unless one sees God as the source of the existence of every part of it… The man who does not see God may have vast knowledge of this or that section of being, but he is like a man who should know all about the eye never having seen a face. His knowledge is of items in a list, not of features in a face. The shape of things, the proportion of things, the totality of things, are unseen by him, indeed unsuspected by him.”

It was this “shape and totality” of things to which Sheed gave his life to understanding and unfolding. His entire apologetic was what G. K. Chesterton called “The Outline of Sanity.”

Read here.

Lewis, MacDonald, Krauthammer & the Soul

You’ve probably come across this quote before:

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.

I am glad to discover that the source of this quote is not, as is commonly claimed, C. S. Lewis, but rather his literary hero, George MacDonald. I am glad to know that Lewis would not make such a mistake, but surprised that MacDonald would. This post at First Things has more. In response to the reduction of materialism, and given the unconscious, dominant Cartesianism of our society, the quote strikes many Christian ears as right and as a fitting statement of the Christian position, over against materialism. In fact, though, the quote is wrong, and does not accurately convey the classical Christian teaching. A more accurate statement would be: You do not have a soul or have a body, you are a soul and a body. A soul is, by definition, the form of the body. You cannot have one without the other. To separate them is incoherent.

To the materialist claim that the soul is some sort of ghostly woo, unsupported by any empirical evidence, then, the proper response is: the evidence is right before your eyes. The evidence for the soul is just as present as the evidence for the body, which no one denies. The argument that the soul exists is not an argument that there is something over and above the body, or some ethereal thing in addition to the body, for which evidence must be produced. The evidence for the existence of the soul arises from rightly considering the evidence of the body.


Which leads us to our second point, also discussed further in a post atKrauthammer_Final2 First Things. As a Christmas gift, I received a copy of Charles Krauthammer’s recent book of collected columns, Things That Matter, and though I do not agree with all he writes, he is a superb columnist with a great talent for addressing topics thoughtfully and distilling his thoughts concisely with great clarity and force. Nevertheless, in his essay on stem cells contained in that book, he makes a fundamental mistake right out of the gate, declaring that the question of the personhood of the unborn child, or what he calls “ensoulment”, is a “metaphysical” question, a “question of faith”, and such questions are beyond secular consensus. He repeats these claims in a recent National Review column that is discussed at the First Things link.

There are two problems with this. The first is this: it is impossible to stake a neutral claim on this question; or, at least, the supposedly “neutral” postion in this case clearly favors one judgment over the other. We simply cannot avoid taking some metaphysical position on this question. If we say that since we are not sure whether the unborn is a person, we will not restrict the taking of the unborn’s life, we simply to choose to treat it as if it is not a person. It is not a neutral position; it is, practically, a metaphysical decision against personhood.

But the error in fact lies deeper than this. Dr. Krauthammer’s concerns about “ensoulment” are irrelevant. Let us set aside all theological concerns; let us simply stick to the biology. To identify a human being we need do no more than identify a living human body, and the unborn child is just a living human body. On this question it is the Catholic pro-life position that is one of hard-nosed materialism. The soul is the form of the body; find the living body, there is the soul. Reason needs no more than this. It is the other side, with its hand-wringing over defining the beginning of some vague notion of ghost-in-the-machine “personhood”, that invokes the mystical, unscientific woo.


Some follow-up on Stephen Hawking’s black hole comments: New Scientist presents a basic overview of the questions involved; and, from what I can tell, this view seems to be the most sensible.


christ-in-the-garden-of-gethsemane-1584Suppose you asked, about a mass shooting, “How could this happen?” In response, someone offers you a straightforward, scientific, factual forensic report on the various angles and types of weapons used. Although it does, strictly speaking, answer your question, it isn’t quite the answer you were looking for. Philosophy and theology offer answers to the problem of evil, but as skeptics like to note, they’re never quite satisfactory. That is, while they do offer logical and reasonable answers, they don’t really get to the point. Evil and suffering is not a logic problem. Though a logical answer is necessary and a helpful part of understanding the problem, just as a physical answer is a part of understanding something like a mass shooting, it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. But the heart of the matter is not a question of science, or logic, or reason. Thus I recommend this excellent essay from Martin Cothran, “How Literature Solves the Problem of Evil”:

The problem of evil is, to steal a phrase from The Hobbit, a “riddle in the dark.” And philosophers do not do well in the dark. They fly by day. When darkness comes, pure intelligence is of little avail. Darkness requires wisdom, and wisdom is of the poets. I don’t think Hegel meant it this way, but it is perhaps why the Owl of Minerva, the symbol of wisdom, flies only at dusk.

When people look for a solution to the problem of evil in its rational or logical form, they are looking for a resolution to a technical problem. But this question—the rational question of evil—is not the real problem of evil. At least it is not the question with which people who experience suffering actually struggle. In fact, the vast majority of those who actually struggle with evil couldn’t even tell you what the logical question was. And even if they were aware of the problem—and even if they knew the answer to it—they would not be satisfied.

How would the answer to a logical question assuage their grief? Their grief is not a logical problem. The logical dilemma of evil would not be satisfying to anyone but a logician—and it would only satisfy him as a logician; it would not satisfy him as a human being.

Read here.


And finally, China’s rover trip to the Moon is proving to be short-lived, as Yutu seems to have suffered from a failure that looks increasingly fatal.


Images: Washington Post; Paolo Veronsese, “Christ in the Garden of Gethsamane”, 1584.

Time & Space


SN 2014J in colour (University College London)

Twelve million years ago, a star in the galaxy we call M82 exploded. Since M82 lies 12 million light years away, the light from that explosion just reached Earth last week, being first noticed on January 21st. You may be able to see this supernova for yourself. M82 sits high in the northern sky above the Big Dipper. As of yesterday, Sky & Telescope reports the supernova’s magnitude at 10.6, within the range of backyard telescopes. The explosion was spotted serendipitously on January 21st by a group of undergraduate students and their teacher during a brief workshop at University College London.

One of the aspects that I find most interesting about this process is the extreme juxtaposition of scales of time and space. As noted, the galaxy M82 sits 12 million light years away; therefore, the light from the supernova explosion has taken 12 million years to reach us. Yet compare these huge numbers with the supernova itself: the explosion itself lasted only a matter of seconds. A Type Ia supernova, like this one, occurs when a compact white dwarf star pulls matter (via gravity) off of a much larger companion star. Eventually, enough mass accumulates on the white dwarf so as to suddenly initiate fusion, explosively releasing tremendous amounts of energy. The explosion itself lasts for a minute or so, and the brightly glowing aftermath itself persists for weeks (which at least gives us plenty of time here to catch it). Yet this brief event sheds light and energy out into space that can overpower the luminosity of an entire galaxy and can be seen in skies of a planet—our planet—millions of light years distant and millions of years in the future.


I have not yet read it, but David Bentley Hart’s new book The Experience of God sounds promising. William Carroll reviews it at Public Discourse, and Edward Feser reacts to Jerry Coyne’s comments on it here. Hart writes:

“Any argument for or against the reality of God not so understood—any debate over an intelligent designer, or a supreme being within time and space who merely supervises history and legislates morals, or a demiurge whose operations could possibly be rivals of the physical causes describable by scientific cosmology—may prove a diverting amble along certain byways of seventeenth-century deism or eighteenth-century “natural history,” but it most definitely has nothing to do with the God worshiped in the great theistic religions or described in their philosophical traditions, or reasoned toward by their deepest logical reflections upon the contingency of the world.”

And Carroll adds:

“Hart offers mostly dialectical arguments to show the incoherence of the positions he rejects. We recognize the radical contingency of the world we experience, a recognition that is not the result of a demonstrative argument but a kind of intellectual intuition based on the immediacy of our experience. This insight into the ‘absolute contingency’ of the world eludes those who embrace a materialistic metaphysics. It is also the basis for a reflection that leads to God as the absolutely necessary being.”


In honor of St. Thomas Aquinas’ recent feast day, we have this—over at BioLogos, Fr. Austriaco argues that evolution is a fitting means of creation:

“I propose that it was fitting for God to have created via evolution rather than via special creation because in doing so, he was able to give his creation – the material universe and the individual creatures within it – a share in his causality to create. In this way, he more fully communicates his perfection to his creation, thus, more clearly manifesting his glory. As St. Thomas points out: ‘If God governed alone, things would be deprived of the perfection of causality. Wherefore all that is effected by many would not be accomplished by one.’ (Summa theologiae, I.103.6)”


Stephen Hawking announces that he suspects that black holes aren’t quite what he thought they were. To wit: he thinks that the event horizon has been mischaracterized. Classically, the event horizon marks the point of no return: the line at which the black hole’s gravity becomes inescapable. Once it is crossed, there’s no way out again. Interestingly, though, in the classical view, an astronaut crossing the event horizon wouldn’t notice anything different at first. He’d just ride along across it along with everything else traveling with him. More recent quantum mechanics–based analyses, however, have suggested that the event horizon is marked by a “firewall” of astoundingly high energy created by quantum behavior at the black hole’s boundary. But Hawking now says that the whole idea of the horizon needs to be evaluated. Other physicists remain skeptical.


And, finally, Pope Francis encourages Notre Dame to resist attempts to undermine the university’s commitment to Catholic moral practice.

Image: University College London

Science Isn’t Special: Short Quotes and Notes on Realism

M. Anthony Mills, by way of writing about Chesterton, Pascal, Duhem, and conspiracy theories atbklarger1.jpg RealClearReligion, gets at the reason that I support a modest, moderate, considered, cautious, or otherwise qualified scientific realism:

“Duhem thought that “underdetermination” applied only to certain experimental sciences such as physics and chemistry. In fact, Chesterton’s conspiracy theorist reminds us that these considerations come into play not only in the philosophy of science, but also in the dilemmas that face us in social, political, and moral life. Contemporary culture holds scientific knowledge up as the final arbiter of Fact. But if scientific inquiry is not itself a simple matter of accumulating indisputable facts, but a subtle process of interpreting, weighing, and explaining them, how could the messy and complex choices we face in our daily lives be any different?”

Just so, and a good reminder to those who would make an idol of scientific knowledge. But there’s a flip side—if science is as messy as regular-life knowledge, then regular-life knowledge is as messy as science. We nevertheless manage to make our way through daily life with a sense of reasonable certainty about most things we encounter.

My basic point is this: that science is not special. Aside from those things that are present to us most immediately, through the senses, most things are known through various steps of abstraction, deduction, induction, and all the various operations of the intellect in varying degrees. This is true in other “academic” fields besides science, such as history, and it is even true in the activities of daily life.

For example, there are at least two possible explanations for why my trash can was knocked over during the night and its contents scattered and scavenged. One is that the neighbor’s dog did it; the other is that alien sasquatches pilfered my trash for some nefarious reason known only to them. The empirical evidence, claw marks and hairs left behind, supports both interpretations. But add to it that there was also that weird and startling flash of light last evening. Coincidence, or alien spacecraft? When my neighbor informs me that his dog disappeared from his fenced backyard last night, however, one of the competing explanations clearly becomes more likely: the dog was abducted by the aliens.

Joking aside, the point is that the philosophy of science is really just a special case of epistemology, and if we can overcome epistemological objections and reach reasonable approximations of the truth in our daily lives (reasonably discounting aliens and concluding it was the dog instead), there is no reason in principle why we can’t at least sometimes do the same thing in science.

In Defense of a Modest Scientific Realism (PDF), Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal write:

“Unless one is a solipsist or a radical skeptic—which nobody really is—one has to be a realist about something: about objects in everyday life, or about the past, dinosaurs, stars, viruses, whatever. But there is no natural border where one could somehow radically change one’s basic attitude and become thoroughly instrumentalist or pragmatist (say, about atoms or quarks or whatever)….

In fact, there are vast domains in physics, chemistry, and biology where there is only one known non-crazy theory that accounts for the known facts and where many alternative theories have tried and failed because their predictions contradicted experiments. In those domains, one can reasonably think that our present-day theories are at least approximately true, in some sense or other.”

Just as in daily life, or history, or law (like a jury making a judgment), there is no need to accept that every proposition we can come up with accurately describes true reality, or to conclude that all are mere attempts to “save the appearances”; all these “theories” are to some degree tentative or revisable, but some propositions are sounder than others, and some are sound enough as to warrant moral certainty as truth. Science’s judgments, while perhaps much more difficult to obtain because of the nature of the things investigated, aren’t fundamentally different. No theory is entirely and precisely accurate, but some theories – the ones that continuously stand up to test — are at least approximately truer than others.

In The Modeling of Nature, Fr. William Wallace, OP, sums it up thusly:

“For realists, all theoretical entities have existence outside of the mind; for non-realists, all are mental constructs. [Arthur] Fine rightfully refuses to take sides in a debate of this kind. In so doing, he clearly accords with the practice of scientists. It would be difficult to find a theoretical physicist who believes that every term in every equation he writes stands for a real entity. Even more difficult would be to find an experimentalist who systematically doubts all of his results and is willing to write them all off as figments of his imagination.”

And a final quote, from Polkinghorne:

“The natural convincing explanation of the success of science is that it is gaining a tightening grasp of an actual reality. The true goal of scientific endeavor is to understand the structure of the physical world, an understanding which is never complete but ever capable of further improvement. The terms of that understanding are dictated by the way things are.”


Short Notes on the Multiverse

Laura Mersini-Houghton writePlanck view of the CMB (ESA)s in the latest issue of Nautilus in defense of the multiverse, offering, she says, empirical evidence for it. Her claims are, needless to say, controversial. Yet I would say that she has, at least, the right approach in spirit: if the “multiverse” is accepted, it should be on the basis of the observed, empirical evidence. So I leave aside for the moment the question of whether these observations are in fact evidence of the multiverse, and look at some more fundamental questions.

There are two basic mistakes that can be made regarding the multiverse:

(0) Actually, there are three mistakes, and the underlying one is to misunderstand the word “multiverse” in the first place.  I’m not a fan of it. If the basic idea is correct, it just means that the universe extends beyond the “Big-Bang-begun” region that we inhabit. It is, nevertheless, a single, causally connected whole in the relevant metaphysical sense, and the “multi” part of the multiverse can thus be misleading. If the multiverse is empirically observed, it is not empirical observed evidence of more than one ontologically independent universe (which is impossible, as entirely independent universes are, by definition, unobservable), it is rather just empirical observed evidence of a bigger universe.

(1) To get to the more mundane mistakes, then, the first is to accept the multiverse as an apparent way out of the puzzle of the universe coming from nothing or being dependent on a Creator. Some think that if they can show that the Big Bang was caused by some prior physical cause, God is eliminated. This won’t work, because even if the multiverse theory is correct, every one of the classical arguments for the Creator still stands. The multiverse theory just makes the universe bigger and older; it doesn’t change its ontologically contingent status.

(2) Similarly, the second mistake is to reject the multiverse just because some people use it as an attempt to avoid the conclusion of a Creator. Those who do the latter do so erroneously; therefore, it does not follow that the multiverse is wrong. If it is wrong, it should be shown so on the basis of sound scientific reasoning, not because some people philosophically misinterpret it.

So, yet again, for the most fundamental theological and philosophical questions, the multiverse is simply irrelevant. It may be scientifically true, and thus interesting, or it may be a dead end, but it is up to science to show us, and philosophers and theologians need not be too troubled.

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.’”


Carrol on Kitcher on Nagel

At Public Discourse, William Carroll asks: Is it wrong to study the natural sciences using a metaphysical framework that sees unity in reality?

Illusions of Unity? Mind, Value, and Nature

“Kitcher’s analysis reveals the temptation to think that the more we “decompose” phenomena into parts, the more likely we are to conclude that nature is simply parts within parts. We, however, need to look more closely at what it means for a thing to be one.”

Read here.

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.