Saturday, February 23, 2008

Babel (Thinking about Entropy)

What I consider to be the most profound consequence of modern science is that it gives definite knowledge about what we cannot possibly know. For ancient Greek philosophy, that was nearly a contradiction in terms, and the heretic Eunomius even said as much. Only Christian apophaticism, perhaps most clearly expounded by the Cappadocian Fathers, challenged this premise. Of course, some Greek philosophers were a good deal better at reconciling themselves to this idea than others; for example, Aristotle's empiricism was less vulnerable (though not immune) to the problem of overstating one's knowledge about reality than Platonic idealism. Both Aristotle and the Cappadocian Fathers deserve their own discourse, but the point for the moment is to note that modern physics has certainly had the rather novel effect of attempting to draw reliable experimental conclusions about what we do not know. For a good introduction, I recommend the work co-authored by my quantum mechanics professor E.C. George Sudarshan titled Doubt and Certainty (and unfortunately subtitled The Celebrated Academy Debates on Science, Mysticism, Reality, in General on the Knowable and Unknowable With Particular Forays into Such Esoteric Matters as the Mind Fluid, the Behavior of the Stock Market, and the Disposition of a Quantum Mechanical Sphinx, which sounds like it was taken from the title of a Fiona Apple album). That work cites several important examples of how modern physics and mathematics builds in limits to knowledge (notably Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem, statistical mechanics, incomputable chaotic systems, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle). And of course, Zubirian metaphysics is intended to capture what we have learned in this regard in a systematic way.

I find this lesson of modern physics illuminates some basic difficulties about the hubris of human knowledge. Effectively, modern physics ought to be able to teach some humility, because it puts hard limits to what one can conclude regarding any particular case. But the lesson is a good deal older, going back to Genesis 11:1-9:
Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Ba'bel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Some people are inclined to take this passage as saying that it is really within the power of humanity to render nothing impossible, as if there were some true form of ancient knowledge that could render human power practically limitless compared to human whim. On the contrary, it seems clear to me that this is not about actual power; it is rather about the disposition of the people in question. It is not so much that nothing will actually be beyond their power, but that nothing will seem impossible to them. And this highlights precisely the problem of not understanding the limits of Adam's natural (and good) gift of "making names," which is the essence of human positivism. It is not so much that these names will actually give them power over the things named, but that the namers will believe that it does, and so they will no longer be restrained in what they believe themselves able to do. So as a blessing to them, YHWH scattered them and divided their languages to prevent them from being unified in this error. Modern physics is simply the recapitulation of this lesson, a message built into nature by its Creator, in response to the unification of science in the language of mathematics. Like all lessons built into creation, this lesson is fundamentally Christological as well, but that again deserves an explanation that must wait.

This is the lesson built into creation: if you attempt to say more than can be said according to certain knowledge, you will begin to Babel. (I use the original word here for the verb form because I do not want this particular confusion to be mixed up with the connotations of our modern cognate "babble.") When you Babel, what you say does not correspond to real meaning. In a real way, your projects become confused and unfocused, and you plan to build what you cannot possibly build. You overreach with your positive constructs, and you end up speaking something that is meaningless. That is the fate of anyone who becomes too enamored with the explanatory grasp of their theories.

The Schoolmen reached the pinnacle of the human capacity for knowledge by combining a healthy degree of skepticism from Aristotelian metaphysics with the humility of Christian revelation. It was built into their very method; this is why disputatio followed lectio. One had to ground oneself in the certain and reliable principles before disputing, because the temptation in otherwise to begin with positive formulations without examining their grounding in reality, and this never leads to knowledge but confusion. It was the Christian humility in their method that prevented them from erring wildly or unaccountably, in a time where empirical science had not observed many of the phenomena that would suggest the principles mentioned above. This Christian humility pervaded even the discussions of principles that were certain as a matter of metaphysics, which allowed the Christian attitude to prevent even natural error.

Alas, their example has scarcely been followed since. That is practically inevitable, for reasons that Anthony Esolen describes well. Indeed, it is the failure to recognize the inevitability that produces the error. People simply don't know the limits of their knowledge well, which causes them to overconfidently stride across the bounds of their knowledge, and that produces error. I've played Sudoku on a couple of recent plane trips, and even though it appears that one never needs to guess at that game, I'm sure there are plenty of people who do. It's a microcosm of the same impulse toward overconfidence, wanting to make a move rather than trying to understand what the board is giving you.

The pernicious characteristic of Babel-ing is that it affects people who engage in intellectual work most profoundly. The reason is simple: these people like least to face their intellectual limitations, and they take the most pride in being able to "contribute" something to the alleged wealth of human knowledge. I speak from experience. Until I learned humility through failure, I never realized how limited I was, although I was well aware that I was not the most brilliant or gifted mind. I had my own personal Babel; I was scattered from the place I had thought to build up a life to a place God found more suitable, a place of which I knew nothing. For that reason, I was particularly struck by the opening line of the movie Bella echoing a long-held belief that circumstances had simply driven home more clearly: "If you want God to laugh, tell him your plans." I knew that lesson, and I had known it many times in my life in many different ways, but I let the knowledge slip away many times before it was driven home. I will probably forget it again, but I pray for God's mercy to let me be more receptive to reminders in the future, so that they can be more gentle.

As I said above, this lesson is built into creation, and this is logical because the root of the delusion that produces Babel-ing is simply a prideful attempt to cross the line between Creator and creature. We forget easily that we have no power to create anything real, including knowledge, and that whatever knowledge we have was received passively from God's creation. Our explanation simply describes what we know; it never creates it. Although St. Thomas speaks of the "agent intellect," the action is nonetheless triggered; it is not our own creation. Even in art, which is a true work of creation, the forms themselves come from what we know. There is certainly a spark of the divine in the poet or the visual artist, just as there is a spark of the divine in the grasp of the agent intellect, just as there is a spark of the divine in the prudent judgment and action of free moral agents, just as our very existence as creation in the image of God shows divinity. But there are natural limits to all of these things (and particularly to our knowledge of them), confined as they are by the finite circumstances and experience of creation.

Ironically, even in the exercise of these limited natural methods, the science of the true metaphysicist teaches the same lesson of humility as practice of the true artist and the true poet and even the true politician and true moralist, albeit in completely opposed ways. The true metaphysicist rigorously examines our limited ability to scrutinize particulars as particulars, while the true artist by his very craft produces an irreducibly particular embodiment of his experience using a creative process mysteriously enabled by the circumstances of his experience. But pure practice of any of these methods in a fallen world is highly doubtful, even impossible, and the temptation to Babel in these fields is all the greater for their enormous positive. This is why metaphysicists, scientists, artists, poets, politicians, and moralists tend to be the worst Babel-ers, and this is why the Enlightenment, Kant, idealism, and positivism are repeated errors, even though they ought not to be. Particularly among empirico-mathematical scientists, the humility that ought to result from strong empiricism is turned upside down, so as to draw definite conclusions outside of what they possibly could have known according to their method. It is a classic Babel-ing scenario, offering methodological conclusions outside of the necessary limits of the method.

One could think more on exactly what aspects of existence produce Babel-ing, and perhaps I will do that in the future. But my Lenten meditation for now is simply to focus on the problem, so I leave with the following points for consideration:

1. Babel-ing is extending Adam's gift of naming beyond its finite limits.
2. People who engage in intellectual work are most likely to Babel.
3. The more profound the sphere of the intellectual subject, the greater is the likelihood of Babel-ing.
4. Babel-ing has been a recurrent theme in the serious intellectual errors of human history.
5. The only proven cure to Babel-ing is humility in the recognition of one's creaturely limits, either through Christian virtue or through the fundamental recognition that one's accomplishments, even the creative ones, always depend passively on reality. Unlike God, we do not create from nothing.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Started thinking about entropy

The title of this post is taken from Warren Zevon's description of the walker in the wasted city in Run Straight Down. The theme is one that has something of an obsession of mine, although I suppose technically what interests me isn't entropy so much as what it connotes: destruction, decay, catastrophe, waste, ruin, etc. I'd date it back to watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos on public television when I was about eight, which really got me into physics. My fascination was with drastic change and destructive processes: supernovae, black holes, the Big Bang, the annihilation of matter and antimatter, radioactive decay, coastal engineering ... those phenomena that are dramatic and uncontrollable yet still subject to order. Quantum mechanics captured my imagination because it dealt with these things with such beautiful precision, but it lost my interest (at least as a career) when the progressive detachment of the theorists from those phenomena became apparent to me, save for a couple of brilliant professors about whom I should say more in the future. Perversely enough, I was a lousy experimentalist despite my firm belief that theorists should concern themselves most directly with experiment, so that left me more or less without a career path in physics, which is why I moved on to other things.

I give this mini-biography because I've realized that I haven't really moved away from that intellectual focus. For better or for worse, the way I see the work is that what defies explanation sets the foundation for our understanding. Pushing against the limits of reason enables reality to shape our thinking. That is the part of the Christian tradition that resonates with me intellectually, whether it is Israel struggling with how the "benefits" of civilized life can leave on thirsty in a way the desert never did, whether it is Origen learning to know the Scriptures of the Hebrews better than they themselves did, whether it is the Cappadocians wondering how the legacy of classical philosophy can produce Eunomius, whether it is Aquinas knowing more in Pseudo-Dionysius than his Neoplatonism told. These are all of a kind to me; this is the way I understand them. And in many cases, I have encountered ways of understanding in other Christian traditions that I consider thoroughly incompatible, which is what causes me to recognize that I am irrevocably wed to the Catholic understanding.

It has occurred to me that if I am to really give a reason for the hope within me, an apologia, I must articulate why it is that I cannot be anything else. This is not to say that I have compelling reasons for my own belief, nor is it intended to denigrate the reasons and experiences of others. Rather, it says what I can believe. If others cannot change my needs in that regard, then they are free to say that the fault rests with me, for that might well be true. But my experience of late has convinced me that these are things beyond my own power to change, so if you wish me to change them, then pray for me to have the will that I currently lack.

But for this season of Lent, which began this year on my son's second birthday as a jarring reminder of life and death at once, I feel the need to confront the reality of myself. At least until Easter, what I write here will be that apologia that I give for my own hope, knowing that I am dust and unto dust I will return.