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amor fati

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Looking through my log reports I noticed someone found the site with the query "i cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and", a phrase I didn't at first recognize as something I'd blogged last March. So I plugged it into google to see what it was and came across this interesting page by William A. Dembski of Baylor University. As the title suggests, it's a defense of Intelligent Design theory against the objection that no creator would have made such an imperfect world.

Within biology, intelligent design holds that a designing intelligence is indispensable for explaining the specified complexity of living systems. Nevertheless, taken strictly as a scientific theory, intelligent design refuses to speculate about the nature of this designing intelligence. Whereas optimal design demands a perfectionistic, anal-retentive designer who has to get everything just right, intelligent design fits our ordinary experience of design, which is always conditioned by the needs of a situation and therefore always falls short of some idealized global optimum.

I didn't know IDers refused to "speculate about the nature of this designing intelligence". So having been caught off guard by Dembski's words, and fearing I'd too easily dismissed ID (though I'm still nowhere near convinced) I read on for some interesting points about the nature of design and the way in which the optimality argument has been used in debate. Because nothing is optimally designed--and a supernatural creator would only design optimally--say the Darwinists, all we therefore have is "apparent design". IDers, however, acknowledge apparent design ("looks designed but really isn't ") and situate intelligent design somewhere between the apparent and the unattained optimal. This would be "the hallmarks [in organisms] of intelligently engineered high-tech systems: information storage and transfer capability; functioning codes; sorting and delivery systems; self-regulation and feed-back loops; signal transduction circuitry; and everywhere, complex, mutually-interdependent networks of parts."

One doesn't have to agree with the conclusion to take an interest in the general argument. Still, the obvious suboptimality of nature needs explaining.

This is a fallen world. The good that God initially intended is no longer fully in evidence. Much has been perverted. Dysteleology, the perversion of design in nature, is a reality. It is evident all around us. But how do we explain it? The scientific naturalist explains dysteleology by claiming that the design in nature is only apparent, that it arose through mutation and natural selection (or some other natural mechanism), and that imperfection, cruelty, and waste are fully to be expected from such mechanisms. But such mechanisms cannot explain the complex, information-rich structures in nature that signal actual and not merely apparent design--that is, intelligent design.

The design in nature is actual. More often than we would like, that design has gotten perverted. But the perversion of design--dysteleology--is not explained by denying design, but by accepting it and meeting the problem of evil head on. The problem of evil is a theological problem. To force a resolution of the problem by reducing all design to apparent design is an evasion. It avoids both the scientific challenge posed by specified complexity, and it avoids the hard work of faith, whose job is to discern God's hand in creation despite the occlusions of evil.

So what began as something resembling science ends as theology. I suppose a commitment to the natural selection paradigm is as much a commitment as Dembski's to his god. The difference is that any good scientist (or any intelligent person, for that matter) is open to the refutation of his premises. Is Dembski?

BTW: I love that word, dysteleology.

submitted by on 2003-09-01T02:04 | Comment | Permalink

I've always known the idea that we are stupid for a reason or that there is some utility to the "virtues of carelessness and inattention" had its uses among right-wingers and John Derbyshire confirms this. His thesis: the institution of marriage cannot withstand being thunk into the ground or "deconstructed to the bitter end", as he says. He enlists Hume with this great quotation:

"This sceptical doubt ... is a malady, which can never be radically cur'd, but must return upon us every moment, however we may chace it away ... Carelessness and in- attention alone can afford us any remedy. For this reason I rely entirely upon them; and take it for granted, whatever may be the reader's opinion at this present moment, that an hour hence he will be persuaded there is both an external and an internal world..."

Derbyshire is wrong to call hyper-rationality postmodern and has probably misused the term "deconstruction". Gay marriage is a product of the Enlightenment, of the modernist tradition, which is the tradition conservatives are fighting, ironically enough. This makes them closer to post- modernists who have always been critics of liberalism.

Believing that thinking too much is self-defeating doesn't necessarily lead to conservatism, by the way. Isaiah Berlin was a liberal who honestly grappled with critics of the Enlightenment because he knew they had a point. He even conceded to de Maistre. The critical rationalist Karl Popper, so much a kindred spirit of Berlin's, also knew that rationalism was ultimately founded upon an unquestionable faith (in rationalism itself.)

submitted by Paul J Kelly on 2003-09-03T02:43 | Comment | Permalink

John Gray's review of Curtis Cate's Friedrich Nietzsche has an interesting characterization of Nietzsche's quarrel with Schopenhauer:

At the start of his book, Cate attacks "the naive notion that Nietzsche was viscerally anti-religious". It is a naivety that infects a field of thought far wider than Nietzsche scholarship. Nietzsche rejected his first mentor, Schopenhauer, claiming that the latter was too much influenced by Christianity. In truth, Schopenhauer turned his back on Christianity more decisively than Nietzsche ever did, and it was partly for this reason that Nietzsche was compelled to break with him. For Schopenhauer, deeply soaked in Indian philosophy, it was self-evident that - contrary to the secular version of the Christian belief in providence propagated by Hegel - history as a whole is without meaning. If there is such a thing as salvation, it lies outside time, and presupposes shedding the illusion of personal identity. For Nietzsche, as for anyone who retains the humanist faith bequeathed to the world by Christianity, this vision of human life was intolerable.

Like innumerable, less reflective humanists who came after him, Nietzsche wished to hold on to an essentially Christian view of the human subject while dropping the transcendental beliefs that alone support it. It was this impulse to salvage a religious conception of humankind, I believe, that animated Nietzsche's attempt to construct a new mythology. The task set by Nietzsche for his imaginary Superman was to confer meaning on history through a redemptive act of will. The sorry history of the species, lacking purpose or sense until a higher form of humanity came on to the scene, would then be redeemed. In truth, Nietzsche's mythology is no more than the Christian view of history stated in idiosyncratic terms, and a banal version of it underpins nearly all subsequent varieties of secular thought. The militant atheist who charmed the good burghers of Sils-Maria with his innocent sanctity left a contribution to our religious inheritance that remains unacknowledged to this day.

submitted by on 2003-03-11T03:01 | Comment | Permalink

An example of the secularist attitude would be this statement by Lisa Belkin. Why are intellectuals so befuddled by the persistence of religion and superstition? Why can't they see the advantage it offers individuals and groups, as noted by Sloan Wilson and Herrmann-Pillath? David Brooks ponders this mystery.

The recovering secularist has to resist the temptation to treat religion as a mere conduit for thwarted economic impulses. For example, we often say that young Arab men who have no decent prospects turn to radical Islam. There's obviously some truth to this observation. But it's not the whole story: neither Mohammed Atta nor Osama bin Laden, for example, was poor or oppressed. And although it's possible to construct theories that explain their radicalism as the result of alienation or some other secular factor, it makes more sense to acknowledge that faith is its own force, independent of and perhaps greater than economic resentment.

Human beings yearn for righteous rule, for a just world or a world that reflects God's will in many cases at least as strongly as they yearn for money or success. Thinking about that yearning means moving away from scientific analysis and into the realm of moral judgment. The crucial question is not What incentives does this yearning respond to? but Do individuals pursue a moral vision of righteous rule? And do they do so in virtuous ways, or are they, like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, evil in their vision and methods?

submitted by on 2003-03-08T05:36 | Comment | Permalink

Richard Dawkins is untroubled by the "the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel works of nature". That's because he's an evangelical Darwinist, in the words of Timothy Garton Ash, who went out and did what Nicholas D. Kristof wishes more liberals would do: show more intellectual curiousity for the religion of Alabama than Afghanistan. The questioning of secularism continues.
submitted by on 2003-03-08T05:38 | Comment | Permalink

E.T. Babinski has assembled a few nice quotations from Darwin on the theological implications of his theories. This is from a May 22, 1860 letter to Asa Gray:

With respect to the theological view of the question. This is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [wasps] with the express intention of their [larva] feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.
submitted by on 2003-03-05T03:22 | Comment | Permalink

Paul Davies argues against a pointless universe:

Today, it is fashionable to describe the universe as a gigantic computer. Information theory, which stems from the realm of human discourse, is routinely applied to physical problems in thermodynamics, biology and quantum mechanics. All these designations capture in some imperfect way what the universe is about. It is not a clockwork mechanism or an information processor, but it does have mechanistic and informational properties. Living organisms have goals and purposes, and I see no reason why we may not use the organism as a metaphor for the universe, as did Aristotle two-and- a-half millennia ago.
submitted by on 2003-03-05T03:05 | Comment | Permalink

Richard Rorty reviews Bernard Williams's Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. A good initial primer on the pragmatic critique of the correspondence theory of truth. Rorty is not at all the caricature of the "postmodern professor" so often lambasted these days. For one thing, he writes clearly. Here are my highlights:

'[Williams] wants to show us how to combine Nietzschean intellectual honesty and maturity with political liberalism--to keep on striving for liberty, equality and fraternity in a totally disenchanted, completely de-Platonised intellectual world.'

'...we nevertheless have no reason to doubt that the West is best at acquiring truth. That Eurocentric claim of superiority cannot, pragmatists believe, be defended by non- circular arguments before a tribunal of ahistorical reason, but is none the worse for that.'

submitted by on 2002-11-25T16:03 | Comment | Permalink

J.M. Coetzee surveys the works of the late German novelist W.G. Sebald. On Sebald's Rings of Saturn :

'It is written to tame the "paralyzing horror" that overtakes its author--that is to say, its "I" figure--in the face of the decline of the eastern part of England and the destruction of its landscape... After a walking tour through the region, Sebald or "I" is hospitalized in a cataleptic state, with symptoms that include a sense of utter alienation linked to hallucinations of being in a high place looking down on the world. To this vertigo he gives a metaphysical rather than a merely psychological interpretation. "If we view ourselves from a great height," he says, "it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end." A spinning of the mind followed by mental collapse: that is what happens when we see ourselves from God's point of view.'

submitted by on 2002-11-25T16:05 | Comment | Permalink

As usual, Frederick Crews shows no mercy. This from a two-part article in which he takes on proponents of Intelligent Design and those, like the author mentioned below, who attempt to reconcile religion with science:

'Take, for example, The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith by Robert Pollack, a molecular biologist at Columbia University and the director of its recently founded Center for the Study of Science and Religion. The title of Pollack's book appears to promise a vision encompassing the heavens above and the lab below. By the time he gets to evolution on page 2, however, the project has already collapsed. There he tells us that a Darwinian understanding of the natural world "is simply too terrifying and depressing to me to be borne without the emotional buffer of my own religion." By cleaving to the Torah he can lend "an irrational certainty of meaning and purpose to a set of data that otherwise show no sign of supporting any meaning to our lives on earth beyond that of being numbers in a cosmic lottery with no paymaster."

'If Pollack's argument had stopped at this point, he could at least be praised for candor about his failure of nerve. But he is determined to place "feelings on a par with facts," and his book is therefore studded with clumsy attempts to make religion and science coincide after all by means of word magic. The rabbi and the molecular biologist, he extravagantly proposes, "share two beliefs founded entirely on faith...: that one day the text of their choice will be completely understood and that on that day death will have no power over us." Moreover, he declares that scientific insight comes from "an intrinsically unknowable place"and who is the Unknowable One, he asks, if not God himself? Hence there is "only a semantic difference between scientific insight and what is called, in religious terms, revelation."'


His own position is spelled out in the last two paragraphs:

'The evasions practiced by Pollack, Haught, Ruse, Miller, and now Gould, in concert with those of the intelli-gent design crew, remind us that Darwinism, despite its radical effect on science, has yet to temper the self-centered way in which we assess our place and actions in the world. Think of the shadows now falling across our planet: overpopulation, pollution, dwindling and maldistributed resources, climatic disruption, new and resurgent plagues, ethnic and religious hatred, the ravaging of forests and jungles, and the consequent loss of thousands of species per yearthe greatest mass extinction, it has been said, since the age of the dinosaurs. So long as we regard ourselves as creatures apart who need only repent of our personal sins to retain heaven's blessing, we won't take the full measure of our species-wide responsibility for these calamities.

'An evolutionary perspective, by contrast, can trace our present woes to the dawn of agriculture ten thousand years ago, when, as Niles Eldredge has observed, we became "the first species in the entire 3.8-billion-year history of life to stop living inside local ecosystems." Today, when we have burst from six million to six billion exploiters of a biosphere whose resilience can no longer be assumed, the time has run out for telling ourselves that we are the darlings of a deity who placed nature here for our convenience. We are the most resourceful, but also the most dangerous and disruptive, animals in this corner of the universe. A Darwinian understanding of how we got that way could be the first step toward a wider ethics commensurate with our real transgressions, not against God but against Earth itself and its myriad forms of life.'


Note: I'm quoting from Part II, unavailable to non-subscribers. Part I is free.

submitted by on 2002-10-07T02:38 | Comment | Permalink

From Thomas Nagel's review of Rdiger Safranski's Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography:

The ancient Greeks had practically invented rationality, but Nietzsche argued that in their art a detached or Apollonian grasp of the world existed side by side with the conflicting, passionate, Dionysian force of unreflective being. Apollo was the god of clarity and form, Dionysus the god of orgiastic ecstasy. Non-rational and potentially destructive feeling contained by, but always threatening to burst the bounds of, self-reflective rational control and understanding: this was the drama of human life, raised to a high level in Greek tragedy. But the subordination of art by the triumph of reason had led in the modern world to a loss of contact with the Dionysian sources of life, and something needed to be done to revive them.

Yet when Nietzsche witnessed the opening in 1876 of the first Bayreuth Festival, blessed by the appearance of the Kaiser and thronged with prosperous spectators, and saw Wagner's fawning response to all this worldly attention, he was repelled. He concluded that a re-enchantment of the world by new collective myths was not the answer. It was too much like religion. But the need remained to bring out the Dionysian forces without taming them, and this was Nietzsche's artistic and philosophical project for the rest of his short productive life.

It meant probing what lay beneath the surface of consciousness in his own psyche, as well as critical examination, on historical and psychological grounds, of the customary forms of thought and justification that are imposed on us without our consent or even our awareness. Most famously, it meant calling into question morality, whose sources were very poorly understood--asking for the significance of morality, as Nietzsche put it, from the perspective of life. What we need, he said, is not the courage of our convictions, but the courage for an attack on our convictions.

submitted by on 2002-09-17T16:54 | Comment | Permalink

about this category

amor fati

OK, so the title's a bit pretentious. What I'm driving at is that the Darwinian worldview, when followed to its logical outcome, is not particularly comforting. Some even argue it is adaptive, in the Darwinian sense, to reject Darwin. Since it is a thesis of this Web site that illusion is necessary for survival, I'm interested in how a culture can reconcile itself to a belief in such an impersonal and indifferent force as Darwinian evolution. Darwin was not the first to discover how life was at odds with illusory human aspirations. Schopenhauer identified the impersonal Will. Nietzsche, after him, attempted the first life-affirming philosophical reconciliation with Schopenhauer's Will. So I borrowed the title of this category, meaning "love of fate", from Section 276 of Nietzsche's "The Gay Science".