That’s So Second Millennium
Episode 013 - Human Mind and Physicalism (Society of Catholic Scientists Conference 2018)

Episode 013 - Human Mind and Physicalism (Society of Catholic Scientists Conference 2018)

June 25, 2018

Overview of the conference - schedule
Edward Feser & connections to Bishop Barron
Theme: Human Mind & Physicalism
Development of the problem and the amazing change in intellectual climate since the 19th century
Laplace and absolute determinism - 19th century consensus

Quantum mechanics demolished this intellectual basis for determinism, although it is clung to fiercely down to the present day, including the profoundly horrifying "many worlds" hypothesis

Bell inequality and the talk by Valerio Scarani about the closing of the loopholes that would allow a "hidden variables" interpretation of quantum mechanics (which would also save determinism, in a much saner way than the "many worlds" hypothesis)

Materialism and "spiritualism" (if you will) are on an equal logical footing, even if cultural issues continue to propel many scientists and intellectual citizens of the contemporary world away from belief in extramaterial beings

Society of Catholic Scientists as a place of refuge from this social pressure toward materialism

The gap between spiritual and material in ancient thought versus modern thought

The problem of qualia, choice, and consciousness and the lack of an actual materialist model for these, as opposed to evasive and reductionist language

On the other hand, the reality of a physical manifestation of all (or nearly all) mental phenomena, the dignity of matter in this detailed participation, and the absolute need for human souls to have bodies in order to be complete human beings (in contrast to Manichean, Platonic, or Cartesian dualism)

The scholastic notion of the human soul as form of the body
The Aristotelian soul / souls
Are vegetative (and animal) souls the forms of those bodies...are those essentially their genetic structure?
This ties back to our existing discussions about "hylomorphism for the third millennium" (so to speak)

The need for a new metaphysics and philosophy in general to rise up and deal with the strange new world that modern science has brought to our attention.

The scholastics, Aquinas of course being the one we remember, had a philosophy that was capable of being constructive...Chesterton's comment that modern philosophers ask us to accept some crazy thing in order to found their system, while Aquinas' starting point was common sense.

The difficulty of thinking and doing interdisciplinary scholarship in the modern world, despite decades of recognizing that we need to do it, due to the volume of human knowledge today and also the whole economic and sociological apparatus that depends on measuring scholars' output somehow...which is tremendously easier for single-focus scholars to maximize.

There is a unique joy that we can have as scientists of faith...both in our subject matter and in our fellowship with each other.

Our next few episodes will look at the subject matter of specific talks at the conference.

Episode 012 - Society of Catholic Scientists

Episode 012 - Society of Catholic Scientists

June 18, 2018

Not to be confused with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, although one would understand the mistake.

Bill interviews Paul about his experience and observations at the Society of Catholic Scientists conference that took place June 8-10 at the campus of Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

The SCS is a very young organization. Its first president is Stephen Barr, a physicist at the University of Delaware. Its first conference was in April 2017 in Chicago. The theme of the 2018 conference was "The Human Mind and Physicalism"--physicalism being a somewhat more precisely defined term than its synonym, materialism. (Believe it or not, some folks at the meeting thought those two elements in the title were probably incompatible.)

Paul discusses the meeting and the variety of scientists he saw and met there, including Barr, Juan Martin Maldacena (a prominent string theorist), Aaron Schurger (a neuroscientist), and more. Bill and Paul do a little digging and comment on motivations for the group, including the desire for fellowship (like the existing group, Catholic Association of Scientists and Engineers) but also to band together against the folly of the existing culture and its tired, hugely outdated idea that science and faith (certainly the Catholic faith) are logically incompatible. GK Chesterton was quite right when he commented that the quarrel between science and religion was properly left to prematurely arrogant scientists and sola scriptura fundamentalists back in the NINETEENTH century. It's the twenty-first, now, and we should get ourselves to the business of putting this to bed.

Paul elaborates on this final fact at some length, discussing the parallels between the current day and the scholastic synthesis of the thirteenth century. Odd, is it not, that in the broad sweep of history, Aristotle and his universe existing indefinitely backward in time lost out to the stories of a bunch of Hebrew peasants who thought the Prime Mover had actually created the world at a specific point...

Episode 011 - Intellectual Citizenship (part 2)

Episode 011 - Intellectual Citizenship (part 2)

June 11, 2018

We start off unpacking the climate change example further and provide some additional context from political science and seismology. The point is to use climate change as an object lesson in how to break down a big issue at least a little bit, which is what a good intellectual citizen needs to do.

That still leaves us with a picture of intellectual citizenship as a really, frighteningly large responsibility for all of us to try to bear. We spend some time discussing the other side of the issue: we either live in a universe with no loving Creator or moral principle of compassion, in which case it hardly matters what we do or don't do, or else we live in a universe that does have such a Principle, in which case our best effort is good enough, because that Principle has things well in hand no matter what we do. If we let that sense of security sink in, that frees us to start with whatever issue attracts our attention first and go from there. We can take almost any example and infer some principles from that, which can be taken to other problems in the world.

Another point inspired, at least indirectly, by The Death of Expertise is the thought that all of us...certainly all of us who have an interest in the subject matter of this podcast...can, should, and probably already have become experts in something, so that we have offer something back to the world. That very expertise also gives us a lot of grist for considering the work of other experts and coming to some sort of judgment as to whether they are fulfilling their obligations and are more or less trustworthy.

Paul then asks Bill, in his personal expertise in journalism, for some pointers on how to judge media. Bill promises to discuss it more in the future, but takes some time to lament the decline many of us perceive in journalists' willingness to report as opposed to opine and engage in punditry.

Bill asks Paul to close out the podcast with a meditation on how model-based thinking could apply to religion as well as science. One prominent way is to consider how we use the examples of the lives of figures in Scripture and the saints to infer models of how human life can go. We don't get very far if we try to replicate another person's life exactly, and yet there are principles we can abstract from the examples of the saints that can help us on our way.

Apparently, we have not even touched on the issue that inspired Bill's original question about "intellectual citizenship." Whether we do that next episode remains to be seen.

Episode 010 - Intellectual Citizenship (part 1)

Episode 010 - Intellectual Citizenship (part 1)

June 4, 2018

Bill and Paul dive into a very simple question posed by Bill over email: "Please describe more what is intellectual citizenship?" That of course opens up a question that lurks behind every issue we discuss, and any philosophical or religious question touches upon, which is what we owe the universe, its Creator if it has one, and each other. We can't learn everything about everything, and we must make choices what to spend our time on.

In the political system we inhabit, in the U.S. and other contemporary representative democracies, we choose whom to trust to make decisions for us. There is a tendency to think about our choices in voting as a process of simply matching up policy preferences, but that leaves out of consideration the very important human question of which candidate will actually act on his or her stated policy preferences and do so effectively.

In our awareness of the broader world, when we give our allegiance to science, it's good to have an idea to what sort of thing we are pledging ourselves. Different sciences are at different stages of development and are more or less ripe for further paradigm shifts. Those paradigm shifts may come more or less "off in the distance," where they may or may not affect how we solve practical problems. The paradigm shifts we've discussed in physics didn't change how civil engineers made their calculations, but the plate tectonics revolution in the 1960s did have practical ramifications for economic geology and hazards assessment, just to name two things. The human sciences of economics, sociology, and psychology are good examples of sciences that are ripe for paradigm shifts. Indeed, currently, they are in the really unstable situation of having multiple competing paradigms.

When we apply science to a practical question, like the issue of climate change, being a good intellectual citizen means gaining at least some awareness of the different parts of the problem and the degree to which our experts can express certainty on each issue. Climate change requires at least three big components. First, we need the basic thermodynamics of how air and water respond to heat, how they move and mix. On that abstract level of physical laws, we have great certainty. Second, we need detailed data on the temperatures, wind speeds, air composition, etc. all across the planet. On that level, we have a great deal of data, but not as much as we could conceivably want. Third, we need models that run on as dense as possible a cluster of node points, which is to say models that divide up the atmosphere, land, and oceans into the largest number of little boxes possible; and likewise, models that take into account as much of the physics as possible, and not just a few of the elements. This is the really hard part, even with the computing resources we now have.

Bill wraps up the episode by noting how daunting we have made the question of intellectual citizenship and also how important the question of models is whenever we try to apply science...and maybe any body of intellectual our problems. We will take these questions as our point of departure for the next episode.