A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Sense of Fact and the Theory of Unintelligent Design

One of the most compelling intellectual encounters of my college days was with the essays of T.S. Eliot. When I first read Eliot's characterization of Paul Valery, "so intelligent that he had no ambition," it went through me like a 9mil slug.

I was young, only moderately intelligent (and knew it), and I had great ambitions still. Of these only the moderate intelligence remains--youth and ambition have fled. I frequently stand abashed (yes, abashed!) at the number of bloggers I read who share with us all, confidentially, that they either belong to MENSA, or could belong if they really wanted to, sometimes with a rather tragic edge to such things, unfortunately. I'm not really intelligent enough to belong, myself, but I sometimes think that, even with all the bright and sterling intelligence among us, there is little genuine sense of fact. The virtual space we write in doesn't encourage it.

What it does encourage are exceptionally bright people, whose razor intellect is not only honed far finer than mine ever was, but also who retain the suppleness of mind of youth--which allows a tight fit around genuine intellectual and philosophical issues. I no longer have this suppleness, I'm afraid, but I still enjoy watching Matthew Yglesias and Majikthise exercise it well. They still have perfectly sized sets of university-trained sockets to turn these bolts, where I must get by with my Gator-Grip, bought for $19.95 (with special offer included!) on late night cable TV.

The "sense of fact" is another intellectually numinous concept that I found in Eliot's essays. It described perfectly what I, who had ambitions to be a famous photographer, was trying to achieve: mastery of fact. I no longer photograph, haven't now for 20 years, and I no longer have ambitions about it, but I am still trying to achieve a fully developed sense of fact, which may, as Eliot suggests, be the best indicator of a completely cultivated and civilized mind.

However, as in the Wallace Stevens poem, "The squirming facts exceed the squamous mind, if one may say so." The word "fact" in English is one of those fine short monosyllables that deceive you into thinking that you know what they represent far better than you actually do.

Photography helps here. Photographs show you directly that "fact" is everything that answers, truly, the questions Who? What? Where? When? How large? or How many? There are facts which cannot be photographed, but those that can are the type for the rest: the questions remain the same. No photograph can actually answer these questions specifically without context, but all photographs can answer them potentially about the facts they picture. That which can be counted, measured, ordered, located or photographed is part of the universal inventory. And the extent of the inventory is equivalent to the sum of the facts.

What photographs do not tell you are the answers to the questions Why? and How? and a sense of fact is the clear perception that these last two questions are qualitatively different than the other six. They are about the essentially intangible relations between facts rather than the facts themselves. No matter how many facts we identify, the relations between them always require inference to discern. So, therefore, those relations remain always subject to differences of opinion.

I think most people, and many very intelligent people, including some potential members of MENSA, really find facts to be a bore. And this is the reason for the debate about a "scientific" theory of Intelligent Design. The number of potential opinions as to why and how things are they way they are is infinite: facts are limited, by necessity, through access by our perception. The inventory is the way it is, no matter why or how, and it is how much it is, because of the limits to our perception, so the inventory really does not stimulate the limitless flights of thought a bored intelligence demands.

Science starts with observation of fact and it ends with the clarification and, eventually, the expansion of fact. I say eventually because not all scientific hypothesis lends itself to immediate test. Often it takes further hypothetical thinking to even discern an approach to experiment. This is why "intelligent design" is a piece of dogmatic theology and not a scientific hypothesis--it tells us nothing new about the facts: you start with, "Well, the facts look to me like they were intelligently designed," and you end with, "Well, the facts look to me like they were intelligently designed." The existence of an Intelligent Designer, if it be so, doesn't alter the markings on the Galapagos finches one jot, or tell you what to do next about what you find out about them by looking at them. And the whole red herring of Intelligent Design is both a piece of circular reasoning and a case of special pleading for an ideological agenda, the propagation of literal truth of the Biblical creation narrative, which is exceptionally distant from the sense of fact.

Perhaps a way to clarify this is to oppose the dogmatic theology of Intelligent Design to its real converse, which is actually not Evolution through Natural Selection, but the Theory of Unintelligent Design, a theory proposed by a United States Air Force captain by the name of Murphy. If we take Murphy's Law, "If anything can go wrong, it will," and pose it next to Robert Browning's formulation of the Theory of Intelligent Design, "God is in His heaven and all is right with the world," something of the dogmatic character of both are illuminated. And if we take O'Toole's Commentary on Murphy's Law, "Murphy was an optimist," and rephrase it as a Theory of Unintelligent Total Lack of Design, "Everything does go wrong all of the time without exception," we now have a new set of sociological facts to add to the inventory which suggest the sheer arbitrariness of all these popular dogmatisms.

I have been unable to find out just who O'Toole was, by the way, so I have no link to offer for him.

What my sense of fact tells me, as well, is that the "scientific theory" of Intelligent Design is as much a cheapening of the value of religious faith as it is an abuse of scientific thought. No one of us can say with certainty that they can number the angels in the way we can number the finches of the Galapagos, and, if one believes in Eternity, it is by no means certain that even number itself will have the same meaning in Eternity that it has in Time. In this matter science and fact are Caesar's, not God's, and should, as Christ pointed out, be rendered to Caesar.

On the other hand, a genuine sense of fact makes it clear that fact itself is incomplete without the relations which explain it, and it is problematic whether those relations exist anywhere but in our self-conscious minds themselves, or, as my Buddhist teachers would put it, in the mind that has no limits or boundaries in any direction, including that of "my" mind and "your" mind.

This is why the Positivist philosophy which denies metaphysics (and it is a philosophy, a "scientism", and not "science" itself) is the mirror image of the special pleading for the literality of Genesis which is behind Intelligent Design. The point of metaphysics is that our physics is incomplete because it offers no coherent, non-circular, explanation of our minds in Time, of why the same intelligent self-awareness, that makes both science and religion possible, even exists at all.

Intelligent Design is the dogmatic, and rather ridiculous, attempt to collapse the world of fact into the space of Eternity. Positivist "scientism" is the dogmatic--and problematic--circular explanation of the problem of self-conscious minds. Either is a philosophy which can be embraced or a dogma which can be promulgated. Neither are science.

MENSA anyone?


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