Scientists Who Wear Blindfolds

Dr. Peter Atkins is a legend in the chemistry community. He retired from his professorship at Oxford University in 2007, but not after receiving such distinguished awards as the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Meldola Medal and the American Chemical Society’s James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public. In addition to his publications in the scientific literature, he has written several excellent books. When I taught physical chemistry at Ball State University, I used his Physical Chemistry as my text. The chemistry community owes him a great deal.

Even the best of scientists, however, can purposely blindfold themselves when it comes to reality. Dr. Atkins demonstrates this fact with a piece that was published on Aeon. The article’s title says it all:

Why it’s only science that can answer all the big questions

Anyone with a modicum of philosophical knowledge understands how wrong such a statement is, but if you like, you can read this excellent piece written by a serious thinker, Martin Cothran. It shows the folly of Dr. Atkins’s thinking in stark intellectual terms.

While I don’t pretend to be as smart as Dr. Atkins or Mr. Cothran, I would like to add something to the discussion. When I first read Atkins’s piece, I noticed two huge assumptions that the good doctor makes. It’s clear that he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that he is making them. Either way, that’s bad. Scientists have to recognize and admit the assumptions they are making, or they are like blindfolded men trying to make sense of their surroundings.

His first assumption comes pretty early:

The triple-pronged armoury of science – the observational, the analytic and the computational – is now ready to attack the real big questions. They are, in chronological order: How did the Universe begin? How did matter in the Universe become alive? and How did living matter become self-conscious? (emphasis his)

Can you spot the assumption? He is assuming that the origin of the universe, life, and consciousness can be investigated with observation, analysis, and computation. That’s a huge assumption. First, it’s not even clear that we can understand consciousness scientifically. Until we figure out how to do that, we can’t address its origin in a scientific manner.

The origin of life is similar. Since it is thought to be composed of one or more discrete events in earth’s distant past, how do we use science to analyze it? Suppose we could actually produce life from simple chemicals in the lab under conditions that might have been present at some point in earth’s past (an unlikely scenario, to say the least). What would such an accomplishment demonstrate? That intelligence can arrange a situation in which life could come from non-life. It doesn’t tell us anything about whether or not it could happen in the absence of intelligence.

But let’s start with something “simpler” – the origin of the universe. We can make observations about the current state of the universe, and we can develop mathematical models that try to simulate the origin of these things. But how do we know that this will give us the actual story of what happened? We don’t. Even if we could come up with a model that is completely consistent with all the observations we currently have (and we are far, far, far from such a model), that doesn’t mean it is correct. It just means it is consistent with everything we know. In the end, then, Dr. Atkins is assuming that we can know enough to distinguish between incorrect and correct models of the universe. Given the fact that the universe is pretty big, I am highly skeptical of the validity of that assumption!

His second (and more important) assumption comes much later in his article. He says:

The lubricant of the scientific method is optimism, optimism that given patience and effort, often collaborative effort, comprehension will come. It has in the past, and there is no reason to suppose that such optimism is misplaced now.

The assumption is glaringly obvious here: We have used science to figure out a lot of things; therefore, we can use science to figure out everything. That’s a major leap of faith! Science has an enormously wonderful track record, and over the long haul, it tends to correct its own mistakes. However, to think that this track record indicates that science can figure out everything is nothing more than a major assumption – one of which I am very skeptical. I think Nobel laureate Dr. George Wald gives a more accurate view of science:

Science goes from question to question; big questions, and little, tentative answers. The questions as they age grow ever broader, the answers are seen to be more limited.

Between Dr. Atkins and Dr. Wald, I think the latter has the more rational view of science.

33 Comments

  1. Victor Ferreira da Silva says:

    Nice article, Dr.Jay! On the origin of life’s topic, I heard that Dr. James Tour is still challenging anyone to give him a plausible scenario, and, if I’m not misguided, he is even giving money to those!

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I don’t think he issued a formal challenge. As I understand it, here is what he said about evolution in a public appearance:

      Does anyone understand the chemical details behind macroevolution? If so, I would like to sit with that person and be taught, so I invite them to meet with me. Lunch will be my treat. Until then, I will maintain that no chemist understands, hence we are collectively bewildered.

      He has also written a lot about the origin of life. Here is what I consider to be his most decisive work on the issue.

  2. John D says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but scientists havent figured out how to make even simple matter. I always hear people saying “we’re this close to making life”. I’ve offered the challenge – How about just making one grain of sand? Take some hydrogen in the lab and produce one grain of sand.

    Maybe science is not that far off, I’m not sure. According to a recent article scientists are going to be converting light into matter any day using high powered lasers. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/01/physicists-are-planning-build-lasers-so-powerful-they-could-rip-apart-empty-space

    Regardless, of the triumphs of science, I definitely agree with you – many scientists are quick to plant the flag after taking a tiny step at the foot of Kilimanjaro.

    It’s funny, back when I was an atheist I resonated with a Kurt Vonnegut quote regarding a dialogue between two pieces of yeast – “They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.”

    It still makes me laugh. I’d still say that our understanding of what’s beyond the bottle is on par with the statement, although I know now that our purpose is much greater.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      To be fair, John, we can make matter, as long as we have a lot of energy. For example, I have done experiments where I bashed tin atoms on lanthanum atoms. I got all sorts of new atoms, even some gold. While I haven’t done it, we could make sand from hydrogen. Bash hydrogen atoms together to make helium. Then bash helium atoms together to get larger atoms. Eventually, you will get to oxygen. Collect that oxygen. Then repeat the process, finishing with silicon. Then mix the silicon and oxygen, and you get sand. Of course, that would take a LOT of designed equipment and a LOT of electricity that came from designed power plants.

      1. John D says:

        That is cool! But has anyone ever done it starting with just simple hydrogen and worked their way up? Every experiment I’ve read about is much like yours in that they always start with more complex elements like lead, tin, gold, etc.

        I’m sure it’s theoretically possible and maybe it has been done. I’m thinking it would be important to try since supposedly the universe started out with just hydrogen and helium.

        Anyway, as you illustrated, just to make one grain of silicon dioxide starting from hydrogen would use up incredible resources in engineering, intelligence, energy, etc. Just goes to show that even the simplest forms of matter are incredibly complex. And letting science start with hydrogen is already sort of a cheat!

        Once I see my grain of sand produced by science, I will stand back and gently applaud. Then I’ll say, “Ok now do a blade of grass” : )

        1. Jay Wile says:

          Well, all of the work related to using nuclear fusion as a power source starts with hydrogen and makes helium. That has been being done since the early 1960s. I am not sure that anyone has collected the products of those experiments and then fused them together, but they have started with helium and made larger atoms, started with those larger atoms and made even larger atoms, etc., etc.

          Now, of course, the blade of grass is beyond anyone’s ability at this point, because that requires generating life from non-life. Many evolutionists want to think that such a process happened at least once in earth’s distant past, but I can’t imagine how any scientist can take that seriously.

  3. Jake says:

    This man has no idea what science actually is. But I expect scientists to be ignorant in this fashion. Instead, who is Cothran? The armory of philosophy is similarly potent, but it’s like Cothran picked up a peashooter from the corner. Heidegger would laugh? The problem of induction? He talks about geometry as axiom, but he doesn’t say that reason is subjective. Who decides what questions we ask? The universe doesn’t pick them for us; why should we even care about geometry? Cothran sounds like one more of those boneheaded anti-intellectual Cavinist rationalists who didn’t get the philosophy memo: he’s worried about constructing and defending a system, but he has no idea that it’s already been deconstructed. What Atkins doesn’t understand is power: it is far more than bomb and flame; it is body and machine, structure and suggestion. It selects research projects, weighs anomalies, and makes and unmakes laws. The question Atkins must answer is why we should live; perhaps he has never met an antinatalist. But such questions have already been answered for him, so he doesn’t understand they’re questions anymore: someone else takes care of them for him. There are so many openings, but I guess one doesn’t learn Foucault, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Kuhn, et. al. at Simon Greenleaf. You are most certainly smarter than Cothran, Dr. Wile; his piece is not excellent, and if his Vital Remnants blog is representative, he is not a serious thinker.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      You are quite wrong about Cothran, Jake, including the very piece you read. He definitely got the philosophy memo. In fact, he holds a B.A. in philosophy and economics from the University of California at Santa Barbara and an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from the Simon Greenleaf School (now a part of Trinity University). He is also the author of several award-winning texts on logic and philosophy. He is most certainly not Calvinist. He is a Roman Catholic.

      It is true that the universe doesn’t pick the questions we ask, and Cothran doesn’t even imply that in his piece. In fact, Atkins is the one saying that there are certain questions that aren’t really questions, and Cothran is pointing out how nonsensical that is.

      You probably need to re-read Cothran’s piece, concentrating on understanding it. You clearly did not.

      1. Jake says:

        Before I respond to you, I found something interesting: either Cothran himself would say exactly what I’m about to say about his own piece, or he has a brother who’s smarter than he is: the Vital Remnants page has two bloggers listed: Martin Cothran, and Thomas M. Cothran, whose middle name is Martin. Thomas M. Cothran has written two pieces for First Things, the place that solidified my opinion that postmodernism is good. And both Thomas M. Cothran’s pieces make much of the point I’m about to make; indeed, they function as a far better response to Atkins than the piece you linked above. That is a serious thinker, and I have trouble imagining the person who wrote that in 2012 would forget it all in 2018. If there is only one Cothran, I’d still take him to task for forgetting what he wrote back then, but I’d take back what I said about him not being a serious thinker. He’d merely not have been thinking all that seriously recently. If there are two, then Martin could use a lesson from Thomas. Anyway, here goes:

        To the contrary: I understood Cothran’s piece perfectly. But it seems instead that you misread my comment: I was not saying that Cothran thinks the universe chooses questions for us to ask; rather, I was pointing out that, if he had a deeper, more educated philosophical perspective, he would have said himself that it doesn’t. This is why I said, “[Cothran] talks about geometry as axiom, but he doesn’t say that reason is subjective. Who decides what questions we ask? The universe doesn’t pick them for us; why should we even care about geometry?” The deconstruction of reason is the howitzer Cothran ignored for the peashooter: he doesn’t even stop to notice any of this. Instead he takes reason at face value, as you can see in the contrasts he sets up:

        In other words, metaphysical questions are not rational because there is no evidence for them. But there are all kinds of mathematical questions that depend on no evidence at all. [emphasis added]

        The implication here is that clearly, math is rational, and reason is obviously a solid concept capable of accommodating the questions Atkins dismisses. Both are naive simplifications of what is actually the case: while formal logic might be incontrovertible, reason — or at least human reason — is ultimately but a label for our customary inductive checks upon the set of things humans happen to have thought about, however powerful and successful it’s been. Rational discourse may in fact not be open to certain questions, but that could just as easily be a failure of rational discourse itself as of the questions — especially as it is humans who decide what gets called rational. Cothran gets distracted by the small evidentiary questions and misses the discursive question — the question of power: Atkins’s problem isn’t just that he’s not taking into account our need to found our systematic thinking on a priori reasoning, but that he doesn’t even know that science isn’t a thing that relies solely on fixed, “rational” structures like evidence and observation. I very much noticed that Cothran doesn’t seem to recognize that science is more than quantitative, either:

        The tools of science are quantitative; they are therefore limited in the possible answers they might give to quantitative answers.

        When a scientist is faced with a non-scientific, qualitative question, he should realize that he is out of his water and would be better off treading lightly.

        When a real-life, made-of-meat scientist is faced with a question, what actually happens is that he checks his scientific paradigm, and his sense of what his job is supposed to be, for handles on that question. If there are none, he might leave it alone, or he might try to create some handles — or recreate the question to have handles, as Atkins does. (This is Kuhn’s puzzle-solving; Thomas M. Cothran also refers to this kind of historicity.) Questions don’t start out quantitative; they have to be made quantitative: Our answer to why the sky is blue became quantitative when people started looking for a quantitative reason for it. Nor does science always let us turn its questions quantitative; quantum mechanics had to be a rather philosophical thing. Just like physicists come up with math for the mathematicians, sometimes they come up with philosophy for the philosophers. If I had to pick a side, I’d probably say every question is really a “why” question and not a “how” question. And sure, what Cothran meant was to refer to questions like the meaning of life, whether God exists, and such, but even these move around: what, after all, is time? I don’t know that I have a good word for these questions, but by framing them as “non-scientific” and “qualitative,” Cothran tripped over the line of demarcation.

        Then there’s this one:

        And even supposedly empirical science goes beyond the evidence. Where, for example, is the empirical evidence for dark matter?

        Even if I hadn’t sat through so many seminars on dark matter that the stuff is coming out my ears, I’d still know enough to say Cothran is using a mistaken notion of the empirical: we can’t “see” atoms or quarks, so we came up with other techniques and notions of “seeing” that we call “empirical”; the empirical expanded to accommodate such phenomena. Dark matter is the same. Science is always going “beyond the evidence” (as Cothran says in the previous paragraph) and does so particularly strikingly with dark matter, but that’s not at all the same as not being empirical, unless, due to the problem of induction, science is never empirical. Tons of the reasons we have for believing dark matter exists are empirical evidence; what they aren’t is definitive.

        And again, with that “even,” Cothran is leaving us with the notion that going “beyond the evidence” is still rational. After all, even scientists are okay with dark matter. The entirety of his response to Atkins’s first big question is framed as a demonstration that arguments not backed by observational evidence can still be rational. In all of these things, Cothran is accepting at face-value the definitions that, by their very nature, support scientism: science and reason as objective, empiricism as definitive, the quantitative-qualitative distinction. And the real, Ivy League academics will come along and given a better, more coherent version of Atkins’s perspective, one pristinely systematic and rational, taking into account all Cothran’s objections — but that still says this is seamlessly objective, and by adopting it our project will be infallible. I’d say this project is what animates outlets like Vox and FiveThirtyEight. And what Cothran presents cannot stand up to them; it isn’t even thinking about them.

        Because it is really the supposed objectivity of the scientists, their purported ability to see all and judge all “scientifically,” that sits at the heart of Atkins’s piece. Sure, Cothran is right about induction, he knows how to ask the questions Socrates would ask, and he knows the meme about the unverifiability of the verification principle, but Cothran does nothing else with any of this. And he either merely opposes another, better system to theirs, or wasn’t paying attention to the fact that he left this possibility wide open. Both mean he missed the real problem entirely, and even if this was unintentional, that is no excuse. Atkins’s lack of understanding gives Cothran the occasion for his piece, but the piece has no connecting telos, and reads like he’s merely reciting a list. And you and I both know that list already; indeed, nothing Cothran says didn’t occur immediately to me as I read Atkins’s piece. Cothran may be a good, or even excellent, mid-level teacher, but these are not the marks of a serious thinker.

        They are the marks of American Protestantism:

        The Word of God reveals to us His holy will; it is light, not darkness. God sets before us nothing incomprehensible, if we will but only rightly understand His Word.
        — Ulrich Zwingli

        This matter-of-fact, individualist confidence that all we’re doing when we put arguments together is being “rational” and “objective,” as opposed to being dogmatic or submissive to authority, is practically American Protestantism’s origin story. The practice of apologetics in the U.S. is full of this stuff, as if we can bludgeon people with facts into the faith, and it is the bread and butter of the nondenominational movement. It has a huge following among American conservatives, who eat up Ben Shapiro’s nonsense about facts not caring about our feelings. It is what sustains the continued smearing of postmodernism among American Christians and conservatives, who will reflexively fight for “truth” but think there couldn’t possibly be anything fishy about the “truth” they’re fighting for. And it is boneheaded: it completely misses how subjective and contingent our thinking is — and just how much we don’t understand. And the worst of all this is that serious thinkers on the left are adept at taking it apart. In fact, they’re so good at it, they’ve abandoned postmodernism as too pessimistic and insufficiently revolutionary; thus people like Steven Pinker — and why I say all the things often decried as the fruit of postmodernism are actually modernism.

        And this is why I wonder at Cothran: the strategy of creating parallel conservative or Christian institutions won’t work, because they will never be as good as the real thing. (I don’t think I would ever go for an apologetics degree; such a thing even sounds shlocky.) His awards for his books are good and impressive, as are yours, but what makes you a serious academic is your CV full of research publications. There are so many intelligent Christians who never hear anything but that postmodernism is bad, because we don’t have nearly enough serious thinkers in politics and the humanities. We’re an echo chamber. Every Christian who wants to understand the American political and intellectual landscape should be reading First Things, but even I had never heard of it until last year; instead, all I had was The Federalist (which you introduced to me, via Neil deGrasse Tyson’s antics) — and, save for a few lights, could be written just as well by a bot. I was rather lucky that, in addition to being a curious Lutheran undergrad at an elite institution, I ran into multiple truly serious and erudite Christians by sheer happenstance. Pieces like Cothran’s on Atkins got me nowhere. Unfortunately, the serious things are rather hidden.

        1. Jay Wile says:

          Well, Jake, I thought you couldn’t be more wrong in your first comment. I see now that I was wrong. This comment simply compounds your errors. I will try to clear up your confusion as best I can.

          First, Thomas M. Cothran is not Martin Cothran. I don’t know that they are brothers (similar last names do not necessarily imply relation, as I am sure Martin Cothran understands), but I can say definitively that neither is “smarter” than the other. One piece of evidence for this is that you don’t seem to understand either of their writings. I have read both of Thomas M. Cothran’s pieces on First Things, as well as several comments and articles he has written at Vital Remnants. They are quite consistent with the writings of Martin Cothran. See, for example, how they both take on Dr. Coyne so similarly. The fact that you don’t see this indicates that you probably don’t understand either of them. It also leads to a question you really need to be asking yourself: You are willing to slur Martin Cothran as some 2-bit hack, but you think that Thomas M. Cothran is a first-rate philosopher. If Thomas M. Martin is really a first-rate philosopher, why did did he team up with a 2-bit hack?

          Now let’s get to some of the major points of your confusion, starting with your desire to separate mathematics from reason. If you had the philosophical knowledge that you claim Martin Cothran does not have, you would see how silly such an idea is. Of course mathematics is rational. This is no oversimplication. If you would read a bit of Kant, you wouldn’t attempt to argue otherwise. You then mistakenly think that Cothran is saying that reason is “obviously a solid concept.” Of course, he didn’t even imply that, which once again, demonstrates that you don’t understand what he is saying. He is using mathematics as an example of rational thinking. Geometry requires axioms, and since geometry is an example of rational thinking, we can say that rational thinking involves axioms.

          You claim that “Cothran doesn’t seem to recognize that science is more than quantitative.” Of course, that is not true. Once again, he doesn’t even imply that in his article. What he says is that the tools of science are quantitative, and as a “a real-life, made-of-meat scientist,” I know that he is most certainly correct. Scientists make observations and measurements that are quantitative. We can use those observations and measurements to speculate on qualitative questions, but in the end, the only way we can determine whether or not our speculations are correct is to make predictions and then try to confirm those predictions, which is a quantitative process. It seems you need to spend a bit more time thinking about what science really is, since you are studying to be a scientist.

          I think your confusion might be due to the fact that you misunderstand what the tools of science are. For example, you mention that quantum mechanics is “a rather philosophical thing.” That is certainly true. However, why do scientists even consider the idea that quantum mechanics is worth thinking about? Because our quantitative tools tell us that it offers a great description of the atomic world. Because of those quantitative tools, we can think about qualitative aspects of the subject. But as Cothran wisely admonishes, when we do that, we are out of our water and must tread lightly. That’s why there are so many different interpretations of quantum mechanics. The quantitative tools of science tell us that quantum mechanics is a good description of the atomic world. However, when we try to address the qualitative implications of quantum mechanics, we need help. We need serious philosophers, like Martin Cothran.

          Another source of your confusion is the definition of empirical evidence. Hopefully, that confusion is quickly cleared up by Oxford:

          Based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.

          Hopefully, you have sat through enough dark matter talks to know that its existence is most certainly not based on “verifiable by observation or experience.” Instead, it is based purely on theory. If Newton’s theory applies to large galaxies, then dark matter exists. If MOND (or some variation) applies to large galaxies, it does not exist. Thus, Cothran is precisely correct. There is no empirical evidence for dark matter. This is quite different from the existence of atoms. While quantum mechanics is a successful theory about atoms, their existence does not depend on it. That’s the proper understanding of how the definition of empirical has been expanded. An entity whose existence depends on a theory (like dark matter) is not based on empirical evidence.

          I think another reason you are confused is that you seem to be reading something into Martin Cothran’s words that just isn’t there. Based on one word (“even”), you claim that he portrays “science and reason as objective, empiricism as definitive, the quantitative-qualitative distinction.” Of course, he does no such thing. Indeed, the very statement he makes about scientists being out of their water shows that he doesn’t think science is objective. That’s why he cautions scientists to tread lightly when they are no longer using their quantitative tools. He also never even implies that empiricism is definitive. He simply make the rather obvious statement that science goes well beyond empiricism. He uses the word “even” to show that all systems of thought, even empirical science, are based on unverifiable assumptions. Thus, Atkins can’t use axioms as a reason to dismiss other modes if inquiry.

          Of course, another source of your confusion might be the arrogance you use when reading Cothran’s work. To claim that the only “real” thinkers are the “Ivy League academics” reveals quite a lot! If you don’t become an Ivy League Academic, will you not be a real thinker? Also, you seem to put way too much faith in those “real” thinkers. After all, you claim that they can work out a “better, more coherent version of Atkins’s perspective, one pristinely systematic and rational, taking into account all Cothran’s objections,” but that is clearly not true. The fact is that Cothran is pointing out fatal flaws in Atkins’s perspective that show your Ivy League heroes will not be able to support Atkins’s perspective rationally. That is the mark of a serious thinker, and I am rather surprised that you didn’t notice it. By the way, this man you think is an amazing philosopher (Thomas M. Cothran) isn’t anywhere close to an academic. He is an attorney and apparently has never published even a lowly textbook, much less your definitive hallmark of a thinker: a publication in the academic literature. According to you, I guess that means he isn’t a real thinker.

          Another minor source of confusion for you: As I noted already, Cothran is a Roman Catholic. To say that his article shows the “marks of American Protestantism” is rather laughable, to say the least. Of course Cothran doesn’t believe in the ideas put forth by Zwingli. Indeed, he thinks that the only way to understand Scripture is through the combined rituals and traditions of the Roman Catholic church. The very fact that you think he is espousing Protestant ideals demonstrates that you definitely don’t understand his article.

          You claim that “the strategy of creating parallel conservative or Christian institutions won’t work, because they will never be as good as the real thing.” That is also 100% incorrect. In some cases, we know that they are better than what you call “the real thing.” Certainly, the conservative Christian churches are significantly more effective for the cause of Christ than the lame, mainline churches. I also think that colleges like Hillsdale, Grove City, University of Dallas, and College of the Ozarks are better institutions of higher education than the vast majority of what you would call “real” colleges and universities. As you can see from my blog, I also think there is a lot of evidence that a conservative, Christian secondary education produces significantly better university students than the schools that you would call “real.”

          Your final source of confusion is the nature and value of Christian apologetics. Perhaps you should start by reading about 1 Peter 3:15. Apologetics is a Scriptural command. You should take it a bit more seriously. Also, if you were educated in Christian apologetics (as Martin Cothran is), you would know that it has nothing to do with bludgeoning “people with facts into the faith.” Indeed, a serious apologist does nothing of the sort. And as for saying that a degree in Apologetics “even sounds shlocky,” you need to once again check your arrogance at the door. It is never “shlocky” to obey Scriptural commands, and it is never “shlocky” to educate yourself about how to do that.

        2. Jake says:

          I will respond to this over the next few days, but in the meantime, this is a conversation that needs to be reset.

          I do not wish to attack you; I rather respect you. This is why, as I strongly disagree with your perspective on philosophy (I think you don’t know it well enough to be saying the things you say, especially about postmodernism), I am talking to you about it rather than saying nothing. Frankly, my coming down strong on Cothran was prompted by your continued antagonism towards postmodernism. I don’t at all apologize for my harsh opinion on Cothran, but I am sorry for expressing it antagonistically here.

          Though I would like to debate you here, publicly, I think it will be too long and personal.

        3. Jay Wile says:

          I don’t wish to attack you, either, Jake. However, when you attack someone I respect who is clearly a deep thinker, I must respond in a frank manner.

  4. Jake,

    I appreciate your criticism, although some of it seems to be criticism of what I did not say rather than of what I did say. Some of it too does not seem to be criticism, but rather axe-grinding on certain beliefs you have that are different than mine. And some of it I simply have a hard time understanding, something that may certainly be due to my own inadequacies, but may possibly be due to the fact that you are (apparently) not only in agreement with the postmodernists, but you seem to share some of their stylistic characteristics.

    But let’s first clarify a couple of things. First, Thomas Martin Cothran is my son. And, as far as I remember the articles, I agree with him too, which creates the following problem: You agree with him, and I agree with him, but we don’t agree with each other. So something is wrong here somewhere. Second, you appear to think I am a protestant, which is curious, since I am a Catholic–partly because I reject the Calvinist rationalism that you attribute to me.

    So let me start–at the risk of being accused of perpetrating a “list” (I have the curious habit, you see, of treating distinct errors separately)–by addressing the several issues you have brought up.

    First, under the general heading of things I said which you disagree with yet did not even attempt to refute, you say, “This man has no idea what science actually is.” Okay. So what is science in light of which what I said it was inaccurate? I can’t find it anywhere in the comment.

    Second, under the heading of things I did not say, but apparently should have said even though I disagree with them, you say “reason is subjective.” Well, the term ‘reason’ is famously equivocal, but I can’t think of a commonly accepted definition of under which this statement would be true. Are you saying that the logical process by which we derive one truth from another is subjective? That the faculty of understanding and inference is itself a concept that only exists in our minds as a concept but not in other minds as a reality? That there is no such thing as an actual rational correspondence between the world and the ideas about it in our minds? That the world itself is not rationally structured? That the law of non-contradiction is just a subjective thought like any other? Maybe you would care to elaborate.

    You say,

    Cothran sounds like one more of those boneheaded anti-intellectual Cavinist rationalists who didn’t get the philosophy memo: he’s worried about constructing and defending a system, but he has no idea that it’s already been deconstructed.

    I have already addressed your mistaken assumption that I am a Calvinist (I consider myself an Aristotelian-Thomist), but more to the point, if there was a philosophy memo that went out declaring that reason was subjective and that something (apparently Calvin’s system) has been “deconstructed,” I am certainly not aware of it. Maybe you could enlighten me.

    And if there was such a memo about deconstructing anything, then of course it too could be deconstructed, which sort of casts a pall on the whole endeavor, now doesn’t it?

    As to whether one “learns Foucault, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Kuhn, et. al. at Simon Greenleaf,” one, in fact, does not. But of course one learns them elsewhere. I certainly detect Foucault lurking in your vague comments about “power,” a point which Nietzsche might buy, I’m not sure about Kuhn. And it wouldn’t matter, since I disagree with them. But Dostoyevsky? He may have reviled the abuse of power and reason, but he certainly didn’t bemoan the “hegemony of reason” in the sense that Foucault (which he seems to have gotten from his intellectual mentor Bataille) talked about it–or for that matter, the way you talk about it here. If there was anyone like Foucault in Dostoyevsky, he would be one of the nihilist revolutionary characters in The Possessed.

    And then there is this:

    I was not saying that Cothran thinks the universe chooses questions for us to ask; rather, I was pointing out that, if he had a deeper, more educated philosophical perspective, he would have said himself that it doesn’t. This is why I said, “[Cothran] talks about geometry as axiom, but he doesn’t say that reason is subjective. Who decides what questions we ask? The universe doesn’t pick them for us; why should we even care about geometry?”

    Okay, I’ll bite. I do think the universe picks the questions we ask, or at least dictates them in the sense that the human nature of man is universal in the species and the makeup of that nature naturally results in certain questions being of concern to him. Which is why, by the way, that the same questions have been asked again and again throughout human history, with regular frequency and consistency. And if you believe that there were no people with a deep, educated philosophical perspective who believed this, all I can do is dumbly point to Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson and a score of others who did.

    Go ahead. Deconstruct that.

    But, again, why am I responsible for not making criticisms from a position with which I disagree? You seem to feel like I have an obligation to ask questions based on your assumptions rather than mine. You can make all the criticisms all you want from whatever apparently postmodern position you take. But I don’t make them because I’m not a postmodernist.

    You seem to believe that a position that holds to the objective basis of reason is not a philosophical position, which is simply false.

    And this:

    When a real-life, made-of-meat scientist is faced with a question, what actually happens is that he checks his scientific paradigm, and his sense of what his job is supposed to be, for handles on that question. If there are none, he might leave it alone, or he might try to create some handles — or recreate the question to have handles, as Atkins does. (This is Kuhn’s puzzle-solving; Thomas M. Cothran also refers to this kind of historicity.) Questions don’t start out quantitative; they have to be made quantitative: Our answer to why the sky is blue became quantitative when people started looking for a quantitative reason for it.

    Fine. When our questions become quantitative, we seek quantitative means for answering them. I don’t know what I said that was in conflict with this. But this completely ignores the fact that the point of my piece was to criticize Atkins, whose point was that science could answer all questions, including ones that aren’t quantitative.

    And how did I “trip over the line of demarcation?”

    And sure, what Cothran meant was to refer to questions like the meaning of life, whether God exists, and such, but even these move around: what, after all, is time? I don’t know that I have a good word for these questions, but by framing them as “non-scientific” and “qualitative,” Cothran tripped over the line of demarcation.

    I argue that Adkins went over the line of demarcation and in doing so went over the line of demarcation? I was engaging in a critique from a philosophical standpoint. I can do that, since the question of what is science and what isn’t is a philosophical (not a scientific) question. And when I did it, there wasn’t a demarcation line in sight.

    In fact, as far as I can determine every position you assert here is just that: an assertion. Unless I’m missing something, you don’t argue for any of them. What is the argument for the subjectivity of reason (now that would be rather ironic, wouldn’t it?), or for it just being a manifestation of power? What is the argument that there are no questions that are natural to humans? They’re nice assertions (although they would be better if they were actually true), but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with them since they seem to lack any stated rational warrant.

    Or maybe, since you believe that reason is subjective, you don’t think you have to give any?

    1. Jake says:

      I don’t know when I’ll reply next; hopefully I will in a few days. I do have plenty to say, and I expect this will get rather long. I am aware I didn’t respond to the meat of the argument; I promise I shall do so. I hope you will not complain about this; it would be difficult for me not to interpret such a complaint as a lack of sincerity.

  5. Oh, and one more thing:

    In all of these things, Cothran is accepting at face-value the definitions that, by their very nature, support scientism: science and reason as objective, empiricism as definitive, the quantitative-qualitative distinction.

    So those who hold to scientism are the only ones who think that science and reason are objective? You are aware of the realist tradition in philosophy, right?

  6. Jake says:

    Hello, Mr. Cothran; I have read your comment, and I still stand by my claim that your piece does not deserve to be called excellent. As to your seriousness, however, I will have to hedge:

    First, I admit it was unfair of me to implicate your whole blog as evidence of your unseriousness, as I did not read the whole thing, but only looked through the most recent posts (to the second page, I think). Now, you could very well still be a serious thinker; your comment indicates you’ve certainly read and learned a lot (and I didn’t think you hadn’t). However, a serious thinker does not always write and think seriously — and whatever your seriousness, I would still challenge you on your piece (and the blog posts I saw). Further, there are levels and kinds of seriousness; I think that, in what you choose to address and how you address it, the article in question and the blog posts I saw absolutely lack the seriousness I plan to elaborate to both of you. And that is the formulation I am going to stick to: there are ways in which what you’ve written is not serious. Ultimately the reason I questioned your status as a serious thinker was that Dr. Wile made the claim that you are one — and provided as evidence for his claim things I am convinced are not serious (he also made it in the wake of his multiple attacks on postmodernism, which I think are misinformed, and which I have called out in the past). I am going to leave open the fuller formulation of this particular question, because I do not possess infinite time. This is what I’m thinking for now: I did make the claim that you’re not a serious thinker, Mr. Cothran, even if it was for the purposes of challenging Dr. Wile, and you have the right to come down hard on that. You have certainly studied more philosophy than I have (I am but a physics graduate student), and I do not possess the qualifications to pronounce definitively upon your status as a serious thinker. It is too large and pejorative a thing. Thus I am sorry for having done so. That said, I am going to make the most strenuous attempt I can to convince you that, in this instance, you lack a certain seriousness. And I think scientists can have opinions on such things (just as Dr. Wile does) without possessing the qualifications to present those opinions to the relevant academic community: if I have insulted you, Mr. Cothran, in saying you are not a serious thinker, it is equally possible that Dr. Wile has insulted all the serious thinkers in the academic community by adding you to their cohort if you’re not. Or there must exist space for flippantly assessing their seriousness.

    Dr. Wile has asked me to keep my responses “precise and to the point” — and I shall not. For I shall not be able to: since you rejected my request to delete my comments and make our further conversation private, Dr. Wile, my first priority must be adhering to the rules of the particular kind of performance commenting online is. (See note below). For when an argument is public, what is actually going on is not merely — and sometimes not even primarily — about having the best argument, or refuting one’s opponent’s argument. I am going to have to talk a lot about such things, as they are the basis for my claim that your piece is not serious, Mr. Cothran. And I am going to have to use Dr. Wile’s unserious response to me as my example. I will not allow myself to be filibustered; I am too — oops. Let’s say I’m way too slippery for that. If I must, I shall leave this conversation, though if it comes to that, I will do my utmost not to leave it in a bad place. And I will do my utmost to prevent us from going there.

    I wrote at some length in a private e-mail to Dr. Wile of my goals in having this particular conversation. Perhaps I will ask Dr. Wile to publish parts of the e-mail in its entirety, or I shall make them as a comment. (I don’t want to do so yet.) Really what I want to do is this: I am absolutely convinced Dr. Wile is wrong in parts of his philosophical perspective, and I want to change his mind. I already told him being harsh about it was not the best way to go about it, though I felt I needed to do so to counter Dr. Wile’s pejorative statements about postmodernism. In that sense, I wish I had not commented in the first place; I could have done this better. (Note 2; I shall have to figure out a way to do HTML footnotes, or something.) We all have the same apologetic goal: presenting the best defense of Christianity to the world, and generating best formulation of science we can as compatible with Christianity. (Yes, I am deliberately saying I believe in apologetics; I shall deal with your complaint in that regard in the future, Dr. Wile.) I think the Christian community we’re all a part of needs to be redirected in its thinking. Perhaps I am not fully-equipped to do that, and this was almost certainly not the best time, as I have work to do. But I do not see that I am any less equipped on the philosophy end than Dr. Wile. Most of all I do not want to discredit the very real Christian, conservative postmodernists of whom I am now an acolyte. Dr. Wile, you said to me that postmodernism is incompatible with any monotheistic religion. Here is Professor Peter Augustine Lawler, whose status as a serious thinker none of us here is qualified to question:

    Postmodern rightly understood means thought in light of the distinctive successes and failures of modern thought. It means incorporating what’s true about classical, Biblical/Christian, and modern thought in how we understand who we are and what we’re supposed to do. “Postmodern” used in this way can be found, for example, in the thought of Walker Percy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. (I refer you to Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address for an especially clear articulation.)

    Postmodernism is a return to the moral and metaphysical realism of St. Thomas Aquinas. [emphasis added]

    Peter Augustine Lawler, “Remaining Postmodern and Conservative”

    I am committed to this ending in a good way, because I wish to be part of the community you’re in (really I already am in), and for the community we’re in to succeed.

    Note: I am not, in fact, concerned about the permanence of my comments above; other than too-strongly challenging Dr. Wile on your status as a serious thinker, Mr. Cothran, I see little reason to be embarrassed about anything I wrote. And even that I can deal with. My primary reason for asking Dr. Wile to delete the comments is that I feel that, if they remain, I must embarrass Dr. Wile by responding to his last comment. I do not wish to do that.

    Note 2: I do not think my argument was wrong, however.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Jake, I wish you would do me the courtesy of not mischaracterizing what I have said. In my email to you, I said the following:

      Indeed, unless you define it in a way that is quite different from the accepted definition, Postmodernism is quite incompatible with any monotheistic religion, including Christianity. It can be consistent with a multiple-god religion where the gods are partly made by the people, as is popular in many fantasy and science fiction stories, but that’s about it.

      By leaving out the qualifier in boldface, you made it sound like I said something I didn’t say. Obviously, the qualifier describes precisely what Dr. Peter Augustine Lawler has done, as the quote you have given demonstrates. It is a complete redefinition of postmodernism. Indeed, it seems the only “postmodern” thing he has done is to redefine the word. That is a very postmodern thing to do, but to admit that there are “truths” that should be kept and things we are “supposed to do” is anything but postmodern. For a simple description of postmodernism, go to the University of Idaho. For a more complete description, go to Stanford. Postmodernism as it is commonly understood is a scourge, and I am glad to see that you don’t really follow it. I am also glad that you believe in apologetics. You will forgive me for taking you at your word before, which is why I didn’t think you appreciated it.

      I don’t see you as any less-equipped than me to grapple with philosophy, but your analysis of Cothran’s piece clearly shows that you are less well-equipped than him, as both Cothran and I have clearly demonstrated.

  7. Just for the record, the whole issue of insults or whether I am serious seems irrelevant to me. An insult would involve maliciousness which no one here seems to harbor, and whether I am serious or not doesn’t seem to me to be a very profitable question. You can consider me an unserious person to your heart’s content. The only thing I am interested in is the questions in your and my posts.

    And in regard to that (and pursuant upon your last comment), let me comment on what I think is the central question.

    I have the greatest regard for the late Peter Augustus Lawler, but I think he is simply and clearly wrong about postmodernism. The problem with his definition is that it excludes almost everyone commonly considered a postmodernist, and he seems to confuse it with what I think could be most accurately called “premodernism.”

    The premodern view of reason refers to the correspondence of the intellect with the cosmos, the cosmos being the ordered and hierarchical totality of existence (physical and metaphysical). This idea goes back to Heraclitus’ idea of logos and it informed the thinking of virtually every great thinker, pagan and Christian, until the rise of modernism beginning in the late Middle Ages. It was certainly the view of Aquinas.

    The problem with Lawler’s definition of postmodernism is that virtually everyone who is commonly identified as a postmodernist denies this view of reality. In fact, the most salient feature of postmodernist thought involves this denial: the “elimination of the subject,” the view that virtually everything–the self, language, society–are culturally constructed, the instability of meaning, the rejection of “metanarratives,” and the rejection of teleology. It involves the repudiation of universals and the abandonment of appeals to reason (says John McGowan in Postmodernism and its Critics. It is in fact the denial of the cosmos, specifically the idea of any inherent order or hierarchy in reality. This latter belief, in fact, seems to be the central theme of postmodernism.

    Lawler seems to conclude (and I have seen this a few times) that if postmodernism is a rejection of modernism, and since true Christianity is a rejection of modernism, postmodernism must be Christian:

    Christianity is a rejection of modernism
    Postmodernism is a rejection of modernism
    Therefore, Postmodernism is Christian

    The premises are certainly true, but the conclusion, of course, does not follow. If you have trouble spotting the fallacy, I’ll just point out that it is the fallacy of undistributed middle.

    Christianity would indeed have to reject the extreme rationalism and radical empiricism of Enlightenment modernism. But postmodernism goes further and rejects not only the extreme and radical forms of these things but rejects them altogether. Modernism leads to skepticism in metaphysics, rationalism in epistemology, utilitarianism in ethics, and subjectivism in aesthetics. Postmodernism leads to nihilism in everything.

    If you want an account of this, I would suggest The Theological Origins of Modernity, by Michael Gillespie, Minding the Modern, by Thomas Lau, and Passage to Modernity by Louis Dupre.

    Christianity is necessarily and inherently premodern and has to be seen in contrast to both modernism, which thinks too much of reason, and postmodernism, which thinks too little of it.

    But, as I said, Lawler’s definition of postmodernism would exclude almost every notable postmodernist: Derrida, Foucault (at least mostly), Leotard, Lacan, Deleuze, Baudrillard, Laclau and Mouffe, Julia Kristeva, Barthes, and Nietzsche himself. The only ones who are exceptions to this are neo-Marxists like Frederic Jameson and Terry Eagleton (the latter of which rejects the label anyway). In fact, Eagleton seems to me to be almost premodern at times.

    But needless to say, any definition of postmodernism that excludes this many postmodernists is not an acceptable definition. In addition, his definition contradicts virtually every book on the subject I know, and I have a few.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      As usual, Mr. Cothran, you expressed it much better than I did. However, I am honored to know that we at least had the same thought. Perhaps one day I might be as deep a thinker as you.

    2. Jake says:

      I have a couple quick things to say, though they but preface large things I have to say later:

      First, whatever the status of the question of your seriousness (I’m not sure it’s fair of you to dismiss it out of hand, as Dr. Wile is the one who brought it up), I did make another mistake in my last two comments: I forgot thank you for responding to me here. I appreciate it greatly. Again, I still think you’re wrong — about Lawler, too, though I can say less about that than what I started out saying.

      Second, I think Dr. Wile is a distraction here. I notice that you misspelled Peter Augustine Lawler’s middle name as Augustus; were I to argue like Dr. Wile is arguing here, I would make a big deal out of that. He seems to have fixated on defining terms to me he thinks I don’t know, and acting like that makes him smart. I know you are smart, Dr. Wile; I too “had the same thought” — and if you hadn’t heard of Lawler before I mentioned him to you, I had that same thought a bit before you did. I very much know the things the University of Idaho description of postmodernism says, and though I haven’t read the entirety of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, after skimming through it there was little I didn’t know something about or didn’t make perfect sense to me being there, and the only names I wasn’t familiar with were Vattimo, Guattari, and Perniola. The Theory of Communicative Action is on my reading list. I do not think math is not rational, I know what apologetics is, and I know very well Mr. Cothran is not a Calvinist. Saying some of these things does have the effect of pointing other, less-informed readers to sources (which I think important), but you cannot seriously think they function as an argument against me. I don’t think this covers all the unserious remarks Dr. Wile has made, and it seems I am going to have to go through them all in as much detail as possible. I am glad you don’t think I am being malicious, Mr. Cothran; I don’t think you are, either. Though I ask that you not use his tactics; I know what the fallacy of the undistributed middle is, too, and I don’t think you can convince me claiming I don’t teaches anyone else anything. And I’m pretty sure you’re wrong about the very first thing I said:

      First, under the general heading of things I said which you disagree with yet did not even attempt to refute, you say, “This man has no idea what science actually is.” Okay. So what is science in light of which what I said it was inaccurate? I can’t find it anywhere in the comment.

      I can’t tell entirely, because the second-to-last sentence quoted above is awkward, but when I said “This man has no idea what science actually is,” I meant Atkins (As you can tell by the structure of the beginning of my first comment.) But it is difficult for me to think you didn’t just flat-out miss what I was saying. It feels like, in arguing here, both of you are forgetting we’re on the same side.

      But I’m not sure about you, Dr. Wile: It seems a lot like you are merely trying to score points. I want to believe that you don’t understand what you’re doing — and while I can definitely believe Mr. Cothran wasn’t being malicious in the things above, it is much harder with you.

      As to postmodernism: I assumed the argument would go to challenging Lawler’s definition. There are ways in which I think it quite different from the University of Idaho description, but I do not think it different enough that the word doesn’t apply — even with enough of its original content that you find “quite incompatible with Christianity.” In that sense it is not a mischaracterization of what you said, Dr. Wile. Indeed, that is now where the argument has gone. It would have been fairer of me to include that part and say the rest of this directly, but I am in fact going to argue that you’re wrong that this definition is “quite different,” thus making your clarification irrelevant. I suppose it was not irrelevant in that it lets you say you’re willing to change your mind; the thing is, I’m not at all acting like you aren’t. I hope you understand that this was not at all malicious.

      Unfortunately, I don’t think I can succeed at defending postmodernism in this fashion — this not because I think I’m wrong, or because you know more than I do, Dr. Wile. It is because Mr. Cothran knows more than I do (though perhaps not all the same things). But I think Lawler knew more than Mr. Cothran, and were he here, he’d do rather well defending his own choice to use the word (indeed, if any word can be so accommodating, postmodernism can). It is that trust that both of you must dislodge.

      I don’t think you can do that at all, Dr. Wile — especially if you haven’t read Lawler’s book on the subject, as I expect you haven’t, and especially if you continue to talk in this fashion. Ideally, I would ask Mr. Cothran to pull out Lawler’s best defense of using postmodernism this way, and deal with it. I may be able to come up with a tiny bit myself in that direction (and, the way Lawler talks about it, I think he might approve of such a thing), but I’m am an amateur at this. There seems to be a somewhat small community of conservative postmodernists, and I plan to join, support, and defend that community. As of yet I don’t think I’ve at all discredited it, but if I have, I shall do my best to argue that any such thing is my fault, not its.

      If I have anything to teach Mr. Cothran, though, it is in the direction he uses his knowledge. And that, I should say, was precisely the point of everything I’ve been saying in the first place. Direction is a part of seriousness. Which brings me to the last thing I’ll say today:

      I’m glad you mention Terry Eagleton, Mr. Cothran. He is the postmodernist who is not a postmodernist who makes me think Lawler is one. Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction is a large part of where I’m coming from and why I’m arguing here the way I’m arguing.

      (Also, I am doing the best I can to address both of you without confusion. I hope I haven’t written any of this too awkwardly, or messed up any pronouns.)

      1. Jay Wile says:

        Jake, I am very sorry that you consider me a distraction. I am simply pointing out your voluminous errors. If you don’t want me to do that, don’t make the errors to begin with. And yes, your statement was a direct mischaracterization of what I said. Once again, if you don’t want the distractions, don’t mischaracterize my statements. And no, I am not trying to “score points.” I am trying to educate you. You have educated me in the past (on cold, dark matter, for example), and I am simply trying to return the favor. I am sorry you see that as a distraction. For example, sending you the links to the University of Idaho and Princeton simply confirms what the accepted definition of Postmodernism is, which is nothing like Dr. Lawler’s definition. I wasn’t trying to claim that I know more than you in this field. Indeed, I have already admitted that I don’t. If I were arguing like you, I would say that you were trying to score points by ignoring the fact that I have already admitted this:

        I don’t see you as any less-equipped than me to grapple with philosophy, but your analysis of Cothran’s piece clearly shows that you are less well-equipped than him, as both Cothran and I have clearly demonstrated.

        If you want this to be a genial conversation, then start being genial.

        1. Jake says:

          Do you think your comments — or your motives — form a coherent whole?

        2. Jay Wile says:

          I am not sure how my comments could form a coherent whole. They are certainly part of a coherent whole, but they only offer glimpses. You could think of them, for example, as puzzle pieces. When all pieces are fit together, they form a coherent whole, but each comment is only one piece. Since I am responding to you, I am forced to show you only a few of the pieces.

          I am also not sure how motives would fit into a coherent whole, but my motives are to educate and to be educated. I have educated you in the past and been educated by you in the past. That’s all I seek here as well.

        3. Jake says:

          As I’ve said, I now have to deal with your unserious responses, Dr. Wile. I’m glad you answered thus my question about your comments and motives forming a coherent whole; it gives both of us a handle on the kinds of things I’m going to go over. And ultimately, going through your responses — and I will try to get to some of yours as well, Mr. Cothran — will also function as an example of my primary point, helping me explain why I said anything in the first place.

          First, you say this:

          And yes, your statement was a direct mischaracterization of what I said. Once again, if you don’t want the distractions, don’t mischaracterize my statements.

          .

          I note that you did not address my response to your initial claim that I mischaracterized you:

          There are ways in which I think it quite different from the University of Idaho description, but I do not think it different enough that the word doesn’t apply — even with enough of its original content that you find “quite incompatible with Christianity.” In that sense it is not a mischaracterization of what you said, Dr. Wile. Indeed, that is now where the argument has gone. It would have been fairer of me to include that part and say the rest of this directly, but I am in fact going to argue that you’re wrong that this definition is “quite different,” thus making your clarification irrelevant. I suppose it was not irrelevant in that it lets you say you’re willing to change your mind; the thing is, I’m not at all acting like you aren’t. I hope you understand that this was not at all malicious.

          Note what I am doing: I created a sense in which I did not mischaracterize you. I knew your full statement was that postmodernism is “quite incompatible” with Christianity unless it’s defined “quite differently” from the “accepted definition.” But I think it is perfectly compatible with Christianity without it being defined “quite differently” from the “accepted definition.” So I would argue that your whole statement is wrong, and thus that the first half doesn’t bear on the wrongness of the second. And we are right back at arguing over whether postmodernism in its “accepted definition” is “quite incompatible” with Christianity. So I understood what you were saying, and thus, in my response, I didn’t feel the need to go through all this with you. Now, here is the important part: if I were talking only to you, would this have mischaracterized you to you? You could still have objected to how I responded, and then I would have said this, indicating I understood what you were getting at. So, in my head, you weren’t mischaracterized; perhaps to you you were mischaracterized, but then afterwards you’d see that I did, in fact, understand what you were saying, and that leaving that part of your statement out doesn’t affect the argument between the two of us (at least, not in its contents).

          Characterization is something done for an audience — even if, ultimately, the only audience is God: you can’t really mischaracterize something to a wall. In this specific instance, I was talking to you — and I forgot that public arguments are also a performance. It is much fairer to say that I mischaracterized you to the other people who may or may not have read this far, but even then, as I knew the argument was going to go here — to the point that I expected to say later that I’m going to defend a postmodernism neither “quite different” from its “accepted definition” nor “quite incompatible” with Christianity — the complete conversation would not have mischaracterized you to the people who read the whole thing (and perhaps not even to the people who don’t; it is not necessarily my fault they don’t keep reading). But I am someone who worries about all these audiences and tries to say what he says with them all in mind. It is not at all difficult for someone to read this argument and get the impression I mischaracterized you, that you hadn’t left yourself an out with the first half of your sentence. For that I am sorry. So check out the conclusion: even though I know there are ways I didn’t mischaracterize you, I know there are ways I did, because mischaracterization is a nuanced thing. (Notice that I made this argument in an abbreviated fashion in my previous comment.) I said I had to treat this as a performance, but I missed something. This, by the way, is why I wanted this conversation to be private: there are too many variables. Had this happened in private, I’d argue I hadn’t mischaracterized you. You’re responding to me (using a specific sense of mischaracterize) in a way that reflects the existence of a wider audience, and I have to respond in kind, further derailing the conversation. And what’s more, instead of addressing me, and the sense in which I didn’t mischaracterize you, you addressed the audience about how I did mischaracterize you. I think that, were you serious about talking to me, you wouldn’t have responded to me merely by saying that yes, I mischaracterized you.

          I realize I said a lot about this little thing. (If you want to respond to me about it, I’ll expect you to address all of it.) I have a lot to say about multiple other little things. So I think I’ll take tiny breaks to attempt to keep things in focus. Here I’ve gone over a word with multiple senses, shown that it matters both which sense we use and who the audience for its use is, and ultimately argued that it’s important not to misrepresent a word with multiple meanings as having only one meaning. I hope you understand now why I’m going over this; there’s a little metaphysics of presence, which will come up more, and little hermeneutics of suspicion. It is now — and perhaps has always been, even before I knew about it — impossible for me to read without implementing Ricoeur’s suspicion, though strictly it’s not postmodernism, and though it’s a critique of structuralism, it’s (probably) not poststructuralism, either. I got through a whole book critiquing it and didn’t at all notice that the author tried to distinguish it from postmodernism. It may be that I am closer to Ricoeur and Habermas than postmodernism, but ultimately it is the postmodern tools which I think are compatible with Christianity. And distinguishing between the tools and the people who use them, and what they can be used for, isn’t nearly obvious. And even if we can cleanly separate the two, the hermeneutics of suspicion is in its own right one of the reasons I commented in the first place.

          Okay, so that’s thing one. Now the second one:

          For example, sending you the links to the University of Idaho and Princeton simply confirms what the accepted definition of Postmodernism is, which is nothing like Dr. Lawler’s definition. I wasn’t trying to claim that I know more than you in this field. Indeed, I have already admitted that I don’t. If I were arguing like you, I would say that you were trying to score points by ignoring the fact that I have already admitted this:

          I don’t see you as any less-equipped than me to grapple with philosophy, but your analysis of Cothran’s piece clearly shows that you are less well-equipped than him, as both Cothran and I have clearly demonstrated.

          There’s a lot here to take apart, and I won’t deal with it all. Sending me links does not simply do anything; it can easily do many things simultaneously — and the things it does can easily be in tension, if not outright contradiction. For example, you use parallelism in that argument; why? Presumably you think it works, that you have found an actual thing to parallel. I know that when I use parallelism, it’s because I feel like it’s a strong argument (indeed, my initial comment here was based on parallelism — assessing the seriousness of someone’s thinking), so that I’d guess that it’s that feeling that made you use it, and not its actual effectiveness. Because it is not effective: you can simultaneously see me as just as “equipped” (we could go into what you mean by that) as you for thinking about philosophy and be making your various comments to sound smart, or for various other reasons. Because many of them don’t have the effect of teaching me anything or “simply” confirming anything:

          You claim that “Cothran doesn’t seem to recognize that science is more than quantitative.” Of course, that is not true. Once again, he doesn’t even imply that in his article. What he says is that the tools of science are quantitative, and as a “a real-life, made-of-meat scientist,” I know that he is most certainly correct. Scientists make observations and measurements that are quantitative. We can use those observations and measurements to speculate on qualitative questions, but in the end, the only way we can determine whether or not our speculations are correct is to make predictions and then try to confirm those predictions, which is a quantitative process. It seems you need to spend a bit more time thinking about what science really is, since you are studying to be a scientist. [emphasis added]

          I know the entirety of that perspective. Do you think I’ve never heard such a thing before? There isn’t even much content to it. Honestly, worrying about the nuances of the word quantitative — which is what I was trying to do (and which I now have interesting ideas about, thanks to this conversation; I may get to discussing them) — has nothing to do with this. I am not at all surprised Mr. Cothran didn’t try to attack my comment along the lines you did. What you said does not teach or convince me of anything, and I cannot think that, if you were to sit down and process what you said, that you’d think it’d teach me anything, either. So what was it for? It seems like the last sentence was merely an excuse to implement another parallelism — and take a shot at me. Why does this mean I need to think about what science really is? How many scientists would just obviously say what they’re doing is quantitative and leave it at that? How many Ph.D.s are awarded? I think they also need to think about what science really is — such a person is, after all, why we’re talking — but I don’t think my abilities as a scientist are at all implicated, and Atkins’s definitely aren’t.

          So your complaint backfired, in the strongest sense. Now I wonder at your seriousness, and I am even more on the lookout for such things. Though I didn’t need to be on high alert to notice this:

          It also leads to a question you really need to be asking yourself: You are willing to slur Martin Cothran as some 2-bit hack, but you think that Thomas M. Cothran is a first-rate philosopher. If Thomas M. Martin is really a first-rate philosopher, why did did he team up with a 2-bit hack?

          I really need to be asking myself that? But first: there are other problems with what you said here, but primarily, I did not slur Mr. Cothran as some 2-bit hack. He is clearly not, as is obvious from his blog (the same one I looked at to judge his seriousness). One can sound like a bonehead without being one (indeed, there’s far more use in saying someone who’s not a bonehead sounds boneheaded than there is calling a bonehead a bonehead); that the apologetics degree also sounds schlocky to me doesn’t mean he can’t know plenty. What I was doing was countering the notion that he’s a “serious thinker” — which you created — and surely there are many gradations between serious thinker and hack. Or, I certainly hope so; you know, maybe all this happened because I’m incredibly serious about the word serious; I think the problem is less that I was confused at Mr. Cothran than I am at your assessment of his piece, Dr. Wile. Anyway, if you want to say that what I said ought only to be said about a 2-bit hack, then that’s a little better, because then you’d be waffling on a word, and I approve of that and would hope you appreciate the irony. I can only say that what I said did, in fact, leave a lot of room open between the two — room I can readily show exists. And I was standing in that room when I wrote what I said.

          But let me answer the question. If my dad were a 2-bit hack, and he asked me to write for his blog because he thought I could say something good, well, first of all, it depends on what kind of a hack we’re talking about. But even then, it’s my dad. My mom actually writes a blog, and sometimes find it rather simplistic. But if she asked me to write for it, I would not care one bit about my assessment of her work; my primary thought would be that she claims me as her own to the point that she would let me represent her, and I would feel tremendously honored. There are all sorts of possible reasons for people to join forces, even if the poor skill of the one tarnishes the reputation of the other. That you would emphasize that I need to think about this casts a huge pall of suspicion on your seriousness here, and suggests bad ulterior motives. And you keep adding to it:

          I am also glad that you believe in apologetics. You will forgive me for taking you at your word before, which is why I didn’t think you appreciated it.

          Nothing I said is inconsistent with the notion that I believe in apologetics. Indeed, my one complaint on the subject was about a misunderstanding of apologetics (one you recognized and pointed out) that is absolutely alive and well. And promulgated by Calvinist boneheads; look for my two-comment response, which I would say is entirely consistent with what I’ve been saying here. This may be just one instance, but rather than being anecdotal I’d call it symptomatic. (By the way, I also have a tendency to call protestant Molinists Calvinists, because their adherence to reason is the same — about the sacraments in particular. You can sound like a Calvinist without being one; this is why I don’t take seriously your challenging me on this, Dr. Wile, and why I didn’t bother to say anything about it in my first response — and haven’t done so until now. I think your challenging me on it is more fair, Mr. Cothran, given that it’s you, and I wouldn’t want to be told I sound like a Calvinist either; I’d have to bang my fist on my own head, instead of the table.) Anyway, I would love for there to be a serious master’s program in apologetics at Harvard, though I might think it’d be better to just call it philosophy; how something sounds depends on who’s listening, and what sounds there are to hear. So no, you did not take me at my word; it’d be fair to think that you wilfully misinterpreted my word (and phonily asked for forgiveness). Or perhaps you just weren’t thinking, and the combination of these words seemed powerful. I think this is the real explanation; even so, you should still consider yourself responsible even for the things you don’t notice, even when they go beyond your control. I have attempted to realize this attitude in my responses here. I think the best defense you have is the one I’ve been making for my analysis of Mr. Cothran’s piece: I wasn’t careful with what I was leaving out in saying all this. If you go with that, you’re conceding a lot of ground, but even then, my primary audience is you. I was right to assume you understood what I was saying about apologetics, at least. Though I clearly wasn’t careful, as at least some what I’ve been accused of asserting is actually reference, and I’ve already explained how I was too harsh on Mr. Cothran. But this is why I have no problem with my initial comments remaining here; everything I’ve said has a formulation I am confident I can stand behind, and the only problem was that that formulation was obvious to me but not to you.

          I think I can get back on track now:

          Just as I know the standard notion of what it means to be quantitative, I understood entirely the argument of Mr. Cothran’s piece — but I was talking about something else. I notice that you’re reading into it, taking the article’s goal at face value: Mr. Cothran didn’t directly imply it, so my claim must be wrong. I was noticing all the things the article didn’t say. That he didn’t say them doesn’t mean he thinks the opposite, but it does mean he’s leaving wide open the possibility that those who do think the opposite will see confirmation in his piece. And the reason I complain about it is that I think there are lots of those people who we need to be worried about convincing. I am surrounded by them. That is the seriousness I was talking about. Just like I said this argument is a performance, and I hold myself responsible for what everyone observing sees, Mr. Cothran should too. Granted, his best objection to this argument is then that it was not he who wasn’t paying attention to his audience (I don’t know who he was writing for; presumably for his blog readers), but that you were not paying attention to the audience in advertising it, Dr. Wile. (This is why the notion of a “serious thinker” is also something we can’t just dispense with. I’d say it is right of you not to worry about what your status as a serious thinker means for yourself, Mr. Cothran; I think you should worry, though, about what it means for everyone else. And what it means that someone is calling you one. It roped you into something you weren’t expecting, certainly. And I am very glad you responded, and I think you have displayed seriousness in your responses.)

          This argument takes care of the following paragraph almost entirely (the bit about empiricism I need to say more about, but not much):

          I think another reason you are confused is that you seem to be reading something into Martin Cothran’s words that just isn’t there. Based on one word (“even”), you claim that he portrays “science and reason as objective, empiricism as definitive, the quantitative-qualitative distinction.” Of course, he does no such thing. Indeed, the very statement he makes about scientists being out of their water shows that he doesn’t think science is objective. That’s why he cautions scientists to tread lightly when they are no longer using their quantitative tools. He also never even implies that empiricism is definitive. He simply make the rather obvious statement that science goes well beyond empiricism. He uses the word “even” to show that all systems of thought, even empirical science, are based on unverifiable assumptions. Thus, Atkins can’t use axioms as a reason to dismiss other modes if inquiry.

          Yes — it’s not there. And that’s the point. To wrap up this thread of the argument, all this is precisely Derrida’s use of the metaphysics of presence, and the notion of there being no outside-text (which gets very misunderstood). I imagine Mr. Cothran would find all that familiar.

          Perhaps you might not like my readings of your comments, Dr. Wile. I submit that this is how almost everyone on the internet comments, and I am rather used to it. Given that such behavior is common, this kind of reading is very successful — and you’re going to have to do a lot of work to convince me to read your responses differently.

          So as not to leave without at least responding to some of what you’ve said, Mr. Cothran, I’ll pick out the best part:

          Okay, I’ll bite. I do think the universe picks the questions we ask, or at least dictates them in the sense that the human nature of man is universal in the species and the makeup of that nature naturally results in certain questions being of concern to him. Which is why, by the way, that the same questions have been asked again and again throughout human history, with regular frequency and consistency. And if you believe that there were no people with a deep, educated philosophical perspective who believed this, all I can do is dumbly point to Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson and a score of others who did.

          Go ahead. Deconstruct that.

          I wouldn’t mind doing so to the question-picking bit, because my point with that was that the process of getting questions isn’t at all obvious. But even if I did try to deconstruct the whole thing, that doesn’t mean destroying it, or abandoning it.

          And ultimately, my answer is no. Because I don’t want to. And that not just because I don’t have to; deconstruction isn’t a monster that must eat everything put before its maw. I constantly have to tell people not to deconstruct art, and that often what they’re doing isn’t deconstruction at all.

          It’s because I like this. I am probably as antirealist as I can possibly be about science without denying that there’s an actual, real world, because modernism makes me incredibly sensitive about it. I think postmodernism takes apart everything that needs to be taken apart today — clearing the detritus to reveal the rock cut from a mountain by no human hands. I believe in God, after all. And reason, too. But Derrida didn’t mind using reason, either. The link is to an YouTube video of an audience interview with Derrida (there are four videos total); it’s pretty good, and I came away from it thinking the guy is cool (and, if you’ve been following National Review on nationalism, that he sounds like a conservative). I am going to let Derrida make some of my points, so I ask that you watch the whole thing. The subjectivity of reason doesn’t mean reason doesn’t exist, or even that it’s broken.

          It occurs to me that, for some time, I’ve been making a primeval version of Lawler’s argument deconstructing postmodernism into something good. I think I realized it when I read the only thing I’ve read of Derrida’s, his “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives),” in undergrad — and I was struck by the fact that he doesn’t like nuclear war. I mean, why not? If postmodernism leads to nihilism in everything, why not that? Even the cartoon Dr. Wile shared has the postmodernist extolling genius. Is he not being an authentic postmodernist in doing so? That’s the whole reason the thing is funny. Like, this feels like a deconstruction to me. If you have a good argument for why Derrida shouldn’t have been against nuclear war, fine; I’d like to hear it. But it would have to take Derrida seriously (as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy page says Habermas takes the postmodernists seriously). And you’re going to have to take Lawler on at his best to convince me to drop postmodernism. If anything, Dr. Wile’s posts about it make me more convinced people are wrong about it.

          And oh — I noticed above that I said this:

          I very much know the things the University of Idaho description of postmodernism says, and though I haven’t read the entirety of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, after skimming through it there was little I didn’t know something about or didn’t make perfect sense to me being there, and the only names I wasn’t familiar with were Vattimo, Guattari, and Perniola.

          I was referring only to the entry on postmodernism, of course. I did not skim the entire Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and conclude I knew about basically everything but a few stray names.

          I will try to cover the rest of your responses to me in a future comment, Mr. Cothran. I may not get to it for another week, however.

        4. Jay Wile says:

          Thanks for your response, Jake. It’s unfortunate that you still continue to mischaracterize things by calling my response to you unserious. And yes, your initial mischaracterization of my view was, indeed, a complete mischaracterization. I understand that your mischaracterization was not malicious, but it was still a complete mischaracterization. The first half of my statement most certainly does bear on the second half, because I am making it clear that there are ways to make postmodernism consistent with Christianity, albeit ways that do violence to the entire idea. Now, you might not think that Lawler’s definition of postmodern is “quite different” from the accepted definition (you are wrong, of course, as the links I gave you make clear), but that isn’t relevant. The fact is that by cutting the first part of the quote, you made it sound like I didn’t know that one could make postmodernism consistent with Christianity. That’s a complete mischaracterization of my view, independent of whether or not an “audience” is present. And no, this is not a nuanced thing. Either you represent my comments honestly or not. This is clearly the case of the latter.

          I am sorry that you think you have to treat this as a performance. I do not. I am simply treating it like a discussion. You say, “I think that, were you serious about talking to me, you wouldn’t have responded to me merely by saying that yes, I mischaracterized you.” In response, I say that were you serious about talking to me, you wouldn’t mischaracterize my views to begin with.

          Now to the “second one.” You claim that sending links doesn’t “simply do anything.” However, recall the statement you made to which I was responding:

          …were I to argue like Dr. Wile is arguing here, I would make a big deal out of that. He seems to have fixated on defining terms to me he thinks I don’t know, and acting like that makes him smart.

          In another attempt to mischaracterize me, you claim that my sending you links is to show that I know something you do not know on the subject. I didn’t even imply that. I needed to make it clear that Lawler’s use of Postmodernism is quite different from the accepted definition. How am I do do that? By simply showing you the accepted definition. That doesn’t imply you didn’t know it. That just makes it clear what the standard definition so as to remove any ambiguity. And I have no need to show anyone that I a smart, because I am not. I know and read a lot of smart people (like Alvin Plantinga, J.P. Moreland, and Martin Cothran), but I am not one of those people. I am intelligent. There is an enormous difference between the two.

          I am sorry that you don’t think my comment about science wasn’t meant to teach you. It most certainly was. The fact is that by claiming science is more than quantitative, you don’t seem to have thought through what separates science from other academic fields: specifically its quantitative nature. Testable predictions are quantitative, and that’s what makes a theory scientific. This is a crucial point that every scientist must understand. It’s not enough to make a theory that “explains” things. That’s not science. With enough epicycles, I can explain anything. A scientific theory must make predictions that can be tested. In other words, it must be quantitative. If you want to be a scientist, that’s something you have to understand. So I was not “taking a shot” at you. I was, once again, simply trying to educate you.

          You claim that you did not slur Martin Cothran as a 2-bit hack, but you most certainly did. As you admit, you said he sounded like a bonehead and claimed that he wasn’t a serious thinker, even though it is quite clear that he is a more serious thinker than either you or me. Given that his job is that of a thinker (and he does a really good job, as shown by the effectiveness of his textbooks and his excellent articles on his blog), you are saying that he is not qualified for his job. That is a slur, to say the very least. You can argue that it doesn’t mean “2-bit hack,” but it is most definitely a slur, no matter how you try to backpedal it now.

          Your “answer” to my question of why a serious thinker would team up with a 2-bit hack is not an answer at all. Let first me remind you of what I actually wrote:

          I have read both of Thomas M. Cothran’s pieces on First Things, as well as several comments and articles he has written at Vital Remnants. They are quite consistent with the writings of Martin Cothran. See, for example, how they both take on Dr. Coyne so similarly. The fact that you don’t see this indicates that you probably don’t understand either of them. It also leads to a question you really need to be asking yourself: You are willing to slur Martin Cothran as some 2-bit hack, but you think that Thomas M. Cothran is a first-rate philosopher. If Thomas M. Martin is really a first-rate philosopher, why did did he team up with a 2-bit hack?

          So I am not asking why a serious thinker would write a guest post on the blog of a 2-bit hack. I am asking why this serious thinker is consistent with the 2-bit hack in his writings? Why does the serious thinker take on Dr. Coyne in the same way as the 2-bit hack. Why does he, in fact, team up with the 2-bit hack. Mr. Cothran asked it best, which you conveniently didn’t answer:

          But let’s first clarify a couple of things. First, Thomas Martin Cothran is my son. And, as far as I remember the articles, I agree with him too, which creates the following problem: You agree with him, and I agree with him, but we don’t agree with each other. So something is wrong here somewhere.

          Once again, I would suggest that the problem is that you don’t understand Cothran’s piece. I would suggest that you read it again and think seriously about it.

          And I am sorry, but your initial response did, indeed, sound like you didn’t believe in apologetics. Most people don’t say a degree in a field they respect sounds “shlocky,” but that’s precisely what you said about an apologetics degree. The only other thing you mentioned in that comment in connection with apologetics is the following:

          The practice of apologetics in the U.S. is full of this stuff, as if we can bludgeon people with facts into the faith, and it is the bread and butter of the nondenominational movement.

          Notice first that you didn’t mention Calvinists here. You implicated all apologists in the United States. Once again, that clearly indicates you didn’t appreciate it. Thus, I was most certainly taking you at your word. As I already said, I am glad that’s not the case.

          And no, my best defense is not to say you weren’t careful in your unreasonable attacks on Cothran’s piece. My best defense is the truth: you are dead wrong. Not only is his piece an excellent once that represents serious thinking, it also represents what I consider to be the best line of attack against the nonsense promulgated by Adkins and his ilk.

          You say you are trying to be serious, but your words say otherwise. You claim:

          Just as I know the standard notion of what it means to be quantitative, I understood entirely the argument of Mr. Cothran’s piece — but I was talking about something else. I notice that you’re reading into it, taking the article’s goal at face value: Mr. Cothran didn’t directly imply it, so my claim must be wrong.

          Please stop mischaracterizing what I have been saying. I have been saying that he “never even implies.” It’s not that he doesn’t directly imply that science and reason are objective and that empiricism is definitive. It’s that he doesn’t even come close to implying that. Instead, you have read all of that into Cothran’s work because of one word: “even.” That’s why I stand by the fact that you don’t understand his piece. You are claiming that he is saying things that he isn’t even implying. You are most certainly right that “it’s not there.” Unfortunately, you initially claimed that it is.

          I would very much like to continue this discussion, Jake. If nothing else, it will help you think more clearly about what it means to do science. However, I would suggest that you stop treating it as a performance. I think it would be much more serious that way.

        5. Jake says:

          I no longer feel the need to reply to you publicly, Dr. Wile. Your latest reply indicates that you are not listening to me and seem not to understand what I’m saying. I did not respond fully to your argument about Mr. Cothran and his son because I felt it would be overkill (though I could easily have done so); the rest of your reply can be similarly dispatched, and is of the same caliber as your previous replies. Thus I see no need to defend myself from it publicly; I trust honest readers to judge for themselves. I am completely fine with leaving my conversation here with you as it stands, as I am now confident both that what I’ve said is clear and that you have no good objections to it. As I have demonstrated, I stand behind my comments, and I have no problem with them remaining; we shall have to continue this conversation privately.

          If Mr. Cothran wishes to continue to respond to me here, I don’t mind talking to him here. I suppose that, if you respond to my responses to him, I might answer you, but other than that I will likely no longer address you here, Dr. Wile. Perhaps I shall send you an e-mail sometime next week.

        6. Jay Wile says:

          I am sorry that you take that attitude, Jake. I wish you were willing to discuss rather than dismiss. Of course, if it’s just a performance, I guess there is no point to it after all.

  8. Jake says:

    And oh — this is really great. Thank you.

  9. Bruce Rennie says:

    To Jay and Jake,

    I am coming to the discussion late. So I have had an opportunity to make a couple of simple observations after the fact of your various comments.

    These observations lead me to ask of each of you the following questions? The answers will, I think, highlight that you are both using common terms with quite different personal understandings.

    Both of you use the term “Christianity” as if there is a mutual understanding of the term. However, that word has many varied and quite complex meanings to many people. What do you each mean by the use of the word “Christianity”? By this, I am asking both of you to be quite clear as to what it includes and doesn’t include. For example, there are those who would include groups such as the Jehovah Witness as Christian as well as Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s. Whereas, a Jehovah Witness would exclude everyone but members of the Jehovah Witness as Christians.

    The same can be said of other groups and denominations that exist. There are certain “doctrines” that are considered essential by some groups and non-essential by others and as a consequence excludes other groups from being considered as parts of Christianity. There are many who classify themselves as Christian by the simple fact that they grew up in a “Christian” family or community but have no essential belief in any doctrinal matters.

    Hence, what do you (as in Jay and Jake) mean when you use that term?

    Secondly, both of you have use the term “Postmodernism” and yet when you look at the various “aspects” of what is included in “Postmedernism”, you find disagreement. Some who are classified as “Postmodern” do not consider themselves to be such.

    Unless you both are clear in what you personally have as a definition for both terms, you arguments aren’t even on the same page. Please, don’t give references to elsewhere for your definitions, espouse them clearly here. The problem when you refer to somewhere else for someone to go searching, you abdicate your accountability to explain your position. Two different people can read the same external definition and get quite different ideas as to what your personal stance is.

    Thirdly, the characteristics of what “science” has and what it means to do “science” is, interestingly, going through a debate as to what it includes. If someone like Peter Atkins is going to make the statements as to what “science” is capable of, there is a singular requirement for a detailed definition that he personally has for what “science” is or is not. This also applies to all of us.

    Jay,

    In our previous conversations, both privately and publicly, we has discussed various aspects of “science”. One of my statements to you has been that “all theories are wrong, but some are useful” with which you disagreed and suggested (with your teachers hat on) that I do more investigation. Interestingly enough, I took up that challenge and it has only enhanced that view. What I have found interesting is that there are many more “theories” that have equal facility to explain the universe around us than just the majority view. Many of these “theories” are being worked on by well trained experts around the world. Whether or not any credence can be given to any majority or minority view is up to the individual based on the evidence they consider to be applicable or of importance.

    What my investigatin does shows, is that our fundamental understanding of the nature of the universe is incredibly narrow and limited. In other words, we have some ideas that seem to work but the reality is that we are just too simple minded to actually understand anything of consequence of the universe about us. We have forgotten that God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is so far beyond us and that He spoke the universe into existence. Notice that, He spoke and it was created. We think it an achievement when we can convert matter to energy or energy to matter. It did not exist, he spoke and then it existed. Just contemplate that for a while.

    Please don’t anyone misunderstand me here, we all have an opportunity to explore and understand the universe about us. It is a gift and a privilege to do so. But we tend to have the hide to think we can make simple “theories” that explain the universe around us and all of our “theories” are simple. People can’t even get their heads around good and evil, love and hate, joy and sadness. Yet we experience these every day.

    I want to point out that you have a tendency to “teach” instead of discuss. Often, you are as “wrong” as the people you are “teaching”. In your discussion with Jake, you have taken the position of being a “teacher” instead of being a participant in the discussion. You appear to not take into consideration that your academic career has closed off certain areas of study for you and that you are no less close-minded than those you “teach”.

    My father is not as intellectually powered as myself (blue collar worker all of his life), yet he taught me the valuable lesson that you can learn from everyone around you, especially those who are not as “smart” as you. It’s a lesson that has taken many years to learn and I still fail in applying it. It is a lesson that all of us need to learn and to learn it in humility.

    You are highly educated and well trained and in turn, you have moved into education of the young as well. Kudos to you for this. But you are closed in how you view understanding the universe around you. I’ll suggest the following, have a look at your areas of expertise and have a look at the foundations (philosophical and otherwise) of the main “theories” you take to be most accurate and see how they square up with the reality of Jesus Christ as creator and sustainer of the universe.

    As they say, YMMV, but you might find that some of these “theories” are not compatible.

    May the Father of us all, Jesus Christ our Saviour and The Holy Spirit our Comforter cover you and your family in the days and weeks ahead, blessing you in His great Wisdom and Mercy, Love and Peace.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Thanks for jumping in, Bruce. Christianity in its broadest sense is defined by the creeds. God is the Father, creator of heaven and earth. Jesus is the Son, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and rose again. He now is at the right hand of the Father, and is our priest and judge. When we accept Him as our Savior, our sins are forgiven, and we will spend eternity with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who together make up the Godhead. Christians can have various beliefs about a lot of different things, but that summary defines orthodox Christianity. This, of course, is incompatible with the accepted definition of Postmodernism, since these are absolute truths, which Postermodernism denies the very existence of.

      I certainly agree with you that there are a lot of different theories out there, some of them are more consistent with the data than the “accepted” theories, and some are less consistent with the data. However, what you have said time and time again is that all theories are wrong, and that is clearly not true. There are many theories that are not contested at all because they are so clearly consistent with the data. Now, the nature of science is tentative, so we should always be open to another theory coming along that is better compared to the data, but until that happens, the theory can be considered true. Even theories that have some problems with the data (or with other accepted theories) probably are still true in many of their statements. For example, quantum mechanics and relativity cannot both be true in their current forms, since they contradict one another. However, even when it comes to quantum mechanics, we know that the fundamental ideas (that energy and matter are quantized, for example) are true, and some of the major features (such as the description of atomic behavior) are true. In the same way, when it comes to relativity, we know that time can pass at different rates, depending on the situation. Thus, while quantum mechanics and relativity may not be 100% true, many of their aspects are true.

      You may very well be right that I am more of a “teacher” than a “participant in the discussion.” However, as a teacher, it is my duty to correct errors. Thus, I am forced to do so, even when I am in a discussion.

      Now, when it comes to my areas of expertise, of course I have already considered the foundations of the theories that guide my work (and many theories that are outside my area of expertise), and I have already considered how they square with the reality of Christ as the Creator. It would be irresponsible for me not to have done so. There is nothing in quantum mechanics, relativity, thermodynamics, etc., that are in any way inconsistent with my Christian faith. Indeed, relativity and thermodynamics bolster the Christian faith. Postmodernism (at least the accepted definition) is in direct contradiction to the Christian faith, which is why I do not subscribe to it.

    2. I use the term ‘Christian’ as it was originally used in the Acts of the Apostles to refer to those who believe in the teachings of the apostles. The content is set forth best and most comprehensively in the Nicene Creed.

    3. Jake says:

      Hello, Mr. Rennie. It is hard to define postmodernism, as the word is used in so many ways (and misunderstood by many). The definition I am using is somewhat referential: I would say it consists of the methods, attitudes, analyses, and historical circumstances of various postmodernist philosophers. Dr. Wile would say that I should also include what he thinks is their inevitable conclusion: that everything is relative, that there are no absolute truths, and there can be no overarching story like Christianity (I hope you don’t mind my simplification in this, Dr. Wile; I don’t think that’s an unfair reading of your opinion). To respond simply to that, I would say that it’s easy to deconstruct any postmodernist argument to that effect — basically because postmodernists all care about the real world — and leave much of the rest of what postmodernism is — the methods, attitudes, analyses, and whatnot — intact. Peter Augustine Lawler (whom I spoke about above) called this “postmodernism rightly understood,” wrote a rather difficult book on the subject, and now there is a small movement of “postmodern conservatives.” As you can see, Mr. Cothran and Dr. Wile think Lawler’s definition is too far away from what they call postmodernism to actually be postmodernism, mostly because they insist it inevitably leads to the conclusion I described above. I disagree.

      As to the truth of theories, Dr. Wile is right: our theories are, in some sense, true. We have mountains of experimental data to confirm quantum mechanics, heliocentrism, and a variety of other things. But what that really says is that we have manmade constructs — which we call theories — that spit out results that agree with what happens in the real world. So if by true we mean “gives correct observational results,” then yes, these theories are true. But what we can never determine is whether there might be some other reason — another “theory” — that can equally explain the data. One could say that this means we never really know the reason things happen, so that the actual nature of the world is always hidden from us. This is called the problem of induction, and Mr. Cothran discusses it in his piece. Thus, if by calling a theory true you instead mean that it is correct about the nature of the universe and the objects in it, it is hard for us to say that. I would say that it is a truth of the universe that the earth orbits the sun, and I would hold many other scientific theories true in this regard as well. But we have to have a different reason besides induction to think our scientific theories correspond to the real world. (If we say that induction just works, for example, we need to give a reason why it works.) It is partly the nature of that reason — what it might be, and what various people think it might be — that occasioned my disagreement with Mr. Cothran and Dr. Wile. The three of us would all agree that, ultimately, the reason is that our universe was created by God, and thus “makes sense.” What we’re arguing about is the “making sense” part.

      So I think I understand — and subscribe to — what you’re trying to say when you say all theories are wrong. But it’s not that they’re completely wrong; it’s that we see through a glass darkly. This is a better formulation. I would say that postmodernism helps us understand why it’s dark, and reveals why various schemes to make it bright merely darken our understanding further.

  10. William says:

    Christian means “little Christ”, based on that I would say that Christianity is a religion that is composed of people who try to emulate our savior, “little Christ’s”. Christianity is not only a religion, it is a movement. It’s has made cannibals, headhunters, drug addicts, tyrants, and many more become peaceful and loving members of society.

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