Saturday, December 30, 2006

Four Causes

In the January 2007 issue of First Things, David B. Hart reviews a book about religion by Daniel Dennett.
Hart criticizes Dennett's approach to understanding religion.
As part of his criticism, Hart writes:

The marvelous strength and fecundity of modern science is the result of the ascetical rigor which with it limits the scope of its inquiries. In the terms of Aristotle's fourfold scheme of causality, science as we understand it now concerns itself solely with efficient and material causes while leaving the questions of formal and final causes unaddressed. Its aim is the scrupulous reconstruction of how things and events are generated or unfold, not speculation on why things become what they are or on the purpose of their existence.

For more about these causes, see
Aristotle's fourfold scheme of causality at Wikipedia.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Is it science?

Bauer argues that a necessary part of "science" is "a body of agreed-upon and to-be-relied-upon knowledge."
Therefore, according to Bauer, the social sciences are not "science" because they do not have "a coherent body of acknowledged fact."

He compares the curricula of programs in the natural sciences to the curricula of programs in the social sciences. In particular, the natural sciences have well-defined sequences of courses that build on each other; the social sciences do not.

This point struck me because of our discussions about teaching design and the qualifying examinations of Ph.D. students who wish to study design.
Those of us teaching and studying design do not have a well-established body of knowledge that we require students to learn.
This does not eliminate the possibility of creating such a thing, for I have seen lists of essential texts for design, but it is true that we do not have one yet at our university.
Defining the content and scope of this body of knowledge would require a great deal of work to achieve some consensus, and that is just in one department.
Doing this across all of the different groups of design educators may be a lifetime's work. (But how valuable it would be!)

So maybe design is not (yet) a science. Perhaps it would be easier to make a science out of some subset of design (like decision-based design).

The unknown unknown

The following passages from Page 74 of Bauer's book describe the concept of "unknown unknown":

"To make sense of the tension between innovation and conservatism in science, more helpful than the banal distinction between what is known and what is not known is the discrimination of three categories: the known, the known unknown, and the unknown unknown."

"The unknown unknown comprises what we do not even suspect. Indeed, if it were not for history, we would not even believe that the unknown unknown exists."

Bauer mentions this as part of discussing innovation in science. Many discoveries are resisted because they do not fit into the prevailing paradigm; they go beyond the known unknown. Scientists are more comfortable uncovering the details the known unknown.

Bauer claims that this conservatism is not bad, for it is part of the filter that removes mistakes and unjustifiable conclusions and things that are wrong.

Friday, December 01, 2006

What is Meant by Evolution?

In Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method, Henry H. Bauer asks the following questions about evolution:

When evolution is said to be a fact, not a theory, what is actually meant? That now-living things have descended from ancestors, with modification, over time? Or that the modifications came by chance, not by design? Or, in addition, that all living things ultimately had the same ancestor? Or, still further, that the "first living thing" had as its ancestor a nonliving thing? Context indicates that when evolution is asserted to be a fact, not a theory, the view actually being pushed includes that of common origin, ultimate inorganic ancestry, and modification through nonpurposive mechanisms: a set of beliefs that goes far beyond the mountain of fact that is actually there, which consists largely of fossils that demonstrate some sort of change over time.

The above paragraph is a direct quote from his book. I would add only that this illustrates how a particular philosophical position can lead scientists to make unsupported conclusions.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Ends of Science

In the November, 2006, issue of First Things, Eric Cohen's article The Ends of Science discusses the optimism and discontent of scientists. Cohen argues that modern science has always had both a "democratic pity" that promised to help cure disease and reduce discomfort and an "aristocratic guile" in which scientists sought "to be free from the constraints of the common man."
(To me that sounds like Uncle Andrew in C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew.)

Moreover, Cohen argues, scientists are not well-prepared to determine whether the science they do is justifiable, though they try mightily to argue that progress is good and thus the potential for scientific advance is sufficient reason for any procedure or experiment, no matter how morally deficient it may be.

Finally, in its pursuit of the truth, science can be noble and dignified. But despite scientists' amazing achievements, modern science is inherently limited, for "its powers do not satisfy our deepest longings; its victories are always temporary and its losses always final." We are born with a desire to know our Creator; only He (and not science) can defeat death.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Random Acts of Design

The October, 2006, issue of Touchstone has a review by Jonathan Witt of a new book by Francis Collins. In The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Collins argues that Christianity and evolution are not incompatible.
Overall, it seems that book takes some positions similar to Stephen Barr his book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.

Witt, in his review, claims that Collins "makes a scientific case for intelligent design."
It seems that this claim depends upon the definition of intelligent design.
It can be taken broadly, as in "an intelligent cause is the best explanation for certain features of the natural world."
A more limited definition focuses on how evolution cannot produce irreducibly complex machines; God must have designed them.

Witt's review discusses the "backward wiring" of the vertebrate eye.
Witt quotes Collins as saying that this structure seems "to many anatomists to defy the existence of truly intelligent planning of the human form."
Witt then states that others have demonstrated that this structure has some advantages.

I find this type of argument irrelevant. The "excellence" or "perfection" of some aspect of our body's design (or the entire thing) is an subjective judgement.
To rely upon such judgements to argue for or against a theory of evolution or intelligent design is a very weak position.

Later, the review uses the word "specified" in a confusing way.
Witt quotes Collins as saying that "from God's perspective the outcome [of random evolution] would be entirely specified."
Witt then claims that "If God merely knew about future events ... then God would not have specified the various outcomes as Collins suggests."
However, to me, Witt is confusing two different aspects of this word and thus misunderstanding Collins' argument.
Collins is using the word as "known" or "stated" (a more passive sense) while Witt seems to think that it must mean "determined" or "decided" (a more active sense).
Cannot God create a random process and know its outcome?

Finally, does the design of our bodies really matter to God?
Is there something about "backward wiring" that is necessary to God's plan?
Certainly we need ways to communicate and to think but does it matter what they are or how they work?
Our resurrected bodies will take a form that we cannot imagine - only then will they be perfect.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Faith and Reason

Pope Benedict's now controversial lecture at Regensburg was entitled “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections.” It is worth reading the entire lecture (not just the quote to which many have objected).

The timing of his lecture was especially fortunate for me because he was discussing a topic that is the central theme of an encyclical by Pope John Paul II entitled Fides et Ratio, and I have been (haphazardly) working my way throught that document, which provides a good introduction to many interesting philosophical ideas that are relevant to the theme of this blog.

The First Things website at has had numerous posts about Pope Benedict's lecture and the reaction to it.
I found the September 20, 2006, post by Ryan T. Anderson especially useful for understanding the lecture and its philosophical implications.
Anderson's summary of the lecture: "Human reason can apprehend the truth—though not the entire truth—of God and man. Reason isn’t at odds with faith. And the modern university performs a great disservice to the well-being of all mankind in relegating the truths of religion to personal preferences and radically subjective, private beliefs. The resulting impoverished Christianity and shriveled secular reason are unable to sustain a culture or respond to challenges."

Sunday, September 10, 2006


Mark Linville's article in the September 2006 issue of Touchstone argues that relativism
means believing that "all truth claims are relative to the perspective from which they are made."
Therefore, a fact is true only for those who believe it.
Linville shows that, because a relativist must accept this view as true for everyone, he is not relativist.
Therefore, relativism is impossible.

Now, however, consider a much more limited relativism relevant to systems research.
As we try to understand the truth, especially about a complex system like an organization, each individual has their own perspective on the system.
They have their own, limited, understanding of the system.
No one person can have a complete understanding of the true system.
Note that this applies to researchers who try to study the system as well.

It is not my intent to deny that the system exists and certain things about it are true (while others are false).
But we have a multitude of incomplete perspectives that I call approximations.
The challenge, when studying a system, is to synthesize these approximations into a coherent picture of the system.
Meredith's article in Operations Research describes a research approach that takes these approximations into account.
This article uses the term "relativism" to describe this approach.

Unfortunately, it might be possible to confuse this research approach with the more general philosophy of relativism and, moreover, use the merits of this research approach to defend relativism.

For me, the use of different perspectives is a reasonable way to understand a complex system, but there remains only one reality.

Monday, August 28, 2006


As an example of a philosophy, consider Stoicism, a Greek school from the second century B.C. (The following description is based on an article by James E. Person, Jr., in the June 2003 issue of Touchstone.) Stoics hate passion because they believe that humans can use reason to know the divine reason that pervades the universe.
Once they know that reason, they can conform their lives to the divine reason.
Passion can interfere with reason and is ultimately pointless, since everything happens according to the divine plan.

Stoics accept all things as divine handiwork and achieve a type of detachment from our world. A human's likes and dislikes and successes and failures don't mean anything.
Marcus Aurelius, the last great Stoic, concluded that, with time, one's life will be forgotten.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Philosophy 101

"Philosophy deals with the nature of man and his place in the universe" (World Book Encyclopedia, 1958). It is not one of the physical or social sciences. To understand man's place in the universe, philosophers try to synthesize a variety of knowledge into a coherent vision of reality.

For instance, Plato believed that ideas that we grasp with our mind are more real than the things we sense. The idea or concept never passes away though the object may move or disappear. Thus, the object is unstable, while the idea is eternal.

Because things move, Aristotle motion and favored empirical observation as the way to understand reality. He trusted his senses because humans sense things before they begin reasoning about them and use "common sense" to know things about the real world based on sensory input and influenced by memory and imagination.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Straying beyond science

Martin Hilbert's article "Darwin's Divisions" (Touchstone, June 2006) provides a useful pointer to the International Theological Commission held at Rome during 2000 to 2002. Their report, entitled "Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God," sets a definite limit on what science can say:

"In the Catholic perspective, neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science."

Why? "Divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided. Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so."

If the controversy is not a scientific one, the next step is to consider the philosophical issues.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Miracle of Evolution

Stephen Barr's article The Miracle of Evolution, in the February, 2006, issue of First Things states that "we must draw as clear a line as possible between science and philosophy - not to elevate science above philosophy but to restore science to its proper 'metaphysically modest' role."
(The descriptor is from Schonborn's article mentioned in my previous post.)

Barr argues that there are two battles about evolution.
The first has those who claim that evolution did happen against those who deny that it happened.
The second battle, according to Barr, involves the explanation of evolution and brings in philosophical issues as well as scientific ones.

Barr argues that neither the neo-Darwinian explanation of evolution (that there is a natural mechanism for producing complex structure) nor the Intelligent Design movement's "design hypothesis" can be scientifically proven at this time, because "we simply don't know all of nature's tricks."

Barr denies that "God is in competition with nature" and believes that a natural mechanism for evolution does not eliminate God, who can be seen as the architect or author of nature. He concludes "We need not pit evolution against design, if we recognize that evolution is part of God's design."

Barr provides a more comprehensive look at science and faith in his very interesting book called Modern Physics, Ancient Faith.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Faculty Voice

The December, 2005, issue of The Faculty Voice, the faculty newspaper of the University of Maryland, included an article by Professor Stephen Brush listing his objections to intelligent design. The article appeared at a time when the topic was receiving a great deal of attention due to the lawsuit against the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board.

My response, published in the next issue, argued that the dispute is a philosophical one about human reason. On one side is the positivist view that reality is limited to what modern science can observe and deduce. On the other side is a philosophy that not only accepts scientific discoveries but also critically examines and refines the evidence of everyday experience to form a more complete view of reality.

My response did not give credit to many things I have read recently about the debate over evolution. An important influence was The Designs of Science, by Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, First Things, January 2006.

The relevant issues of The Faculty Voice (in PDF format) can be found here: December 2005 and March 2006.


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