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.


Anonymous said...

This is a great post. Thanks! It reminds me of Chesterton in Orthodoxy when he talks about having a healthy agnosticism.


CrimsonCatholic said...

That's a good turn of phrase, like most of Chesterton's are. Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

I think that this is a great post, but I just wish that you fans of scholasticism would stop dumping on Platonism as if it were the cause of all the world's problems. Most of what you say in this post is at the heart of Platonism, as this quote from the first translator of the Platonic dialogues in the West, Marsilio Ficino, demonstrates:

"From all this it is quite clear that, in the view of our Plato, the divine cannot be discovered by us but is revealed to us from above; that the substance and nature of the divine cannot be understood by the mind or explained in words or writings. These things should therefore be discussed and described with the hope that we may give encouragement through our words and writings and prepare souls for things divine, rather than offer proof.

This is why Plato writes nothing about the definition of the divine substance and the divine nature. He does, however, write a great deal which, through negations and narratives, exhortation and instruction, will one day lead to that state of mind to which the halls of almighty Olympus will open their gates."

As the scholar Wayne Hankey once eloquently put it:

"Our appreciation of the importance of Denys is bound up with the self-overcoming of the Neothomism of the Leonine revival Erected against what it conceived as modern idealisms, like the condemned ‘Ontologism’, Neothomist suspicion extended even to the Neoplatonism of Augustine. No Platonism served its various purposes. No Platonism, neither ancient, nor medieval nor modern, encouraged the separation of philosophy, nature and state from sacred doctrine, grace and church to which Pope Leo would subordinate them. Still less does Neoplatonism reduce theology to a deductive science of concepts, true thought to realism, or nature to empirically comprehended objectivity. It was no kindness to Aristotle that to his logic these characteristics of the Leonine Thomas were attributed. His Aristotelianism was supposed to be so total that Leonine Neothomists who exposed the magnitude of Thomas’ citation of Denys maintained also that nothing characteristic of his mentality had penetrated Thomas’ mind. Happily, even before the ecclesial revolution associated with the Second Vatican Council made Neothomistic scholasticism irrelevant, it was in decline..."

You can read more of this essay following this link:

CrimsonCatholic said...

Arturo has made a fair point; I am probably too hard on Platonism as a philosophical tool. But I think Hankey greatly understates St. Thomas's dependence on Aristotle (see, e.g., Ralph McInerny's Praeambula Fidei for a good argument as to why St. Thomas was a thoroughgoing Aristotelian in philosophical matters). I agree that the conclusions of good Platonism are no different that the conclusions of good scholasticism. I just believe that one has to work a great deal harder at achieving a good Platonism. One can describe planetary orbits with epicycles just as accurately as Kepler's Laws, but there isn't any question as to which one is easier for limited human intellect to grasp. At any rate, I would definitely agree with the opinion of Michael Sullivan that one cannot fairly dismiss either Plato or Aristotle, and with two great minds in the service of truth, they must point to God in the end.

Vitae Scrutator said...

which sounds like it was taken from the title of a Fiona Apple album

Or an episode of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

I agree with "anonymous" (that coward): this really is a great post!

I'm not entirely sure but that it wouldn't be better to say that "one can describe the observable phenomena relating to our conception of the planetary orbits with epicycles just as accurately as Kepler's Laws", however.

Lloyd Gerson has written a fascinating book called Aristotle and Other Platonists. But then Gerson is at Toronto, so what did you expect?

CrimsonCatholic said...

Thanks for the comment, and particularly for the valuable correction from my lapse in scientific anti-realism. :-)

I'm familiar with Gerson's work, though it's been a while since I read it, and you are right to suggest that my last comment is in the same spirit. Blanket dismissals of great thinkers tend to be oversimplifications at best and slander at worst.

Anonymous said...


I know I've asked Dr. Carson before, but I don't think I've asked you: what arguments made you into a scientific anti-realist?

CrimsonCatholic said...

I know I've asked Dr. Carson before, but I don't think I've asked you: what arguments made you into a scientific anti-realist?

It wasn't any particular philosophical argument so much as being the conclusion that I reached when I was working on being a physicist. Seeing the sheerly bizarre-yet-well-described phenomena in quantum mechanics pretty much convinced me that the fundamental intuition that useful mathematical abstractions correspond to physical entities just wasn't tenable for me anymore.

I think it was being introduced to the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics by Dimitri Nanopoulos at A&M that really sold me on the notion that one can take a drastically unphysical picture of reality that turns out to be accurate, and when it comes down to it, a wavefunction isn't different in kind from the sort of entity that a possible history is. (That is, incidentally, why I have been (perhaps inordinately) hostile to the concept of "possible worlds" in ontology; it strikes me as the same sort of abstraction that serves more to illustrate the limitations of our thinking than our ability to demonstrate anything about reality.) A seminal moment along these lines came while I was in graduate school, when I had the privilege of hearing a series of lectures by the late Ilya Prigogine on his stochastic formulation of quantum mechanics. That, along with meditating on some remarks from my quantum professor E.C. George Sudarshan, more or less convinced me of the conclusion that there were fundamental limits in the ontological grasp of our conceptual formulations.

I would probably be considered a scientific realist in the Zubirian sense of reality, in that we perceive real interconnection of phenomena at various levels of complexity (viz., we do describe our actual experience of reality). But our intellection (in the classical sense) of entities is limited to consideration of them in abstract intellectual modes, a particular mode of expression in being that does not give us access to the phenomena in themselves. Reaching past those abstract intellectual modes into the underlying reality thorough judgments (or sentient intellection, in the Zubirian parlance) is a step removed, and a lot of the confusion in scientific realism seems to be in not recognizing that. Our abstractions are tools to describe the reality of things, not descriptions of the reality of things in themselves.

Incidentally, I have a whole theory about the Eunomian conflict being primarily a dispute over scientific realism and anti-realism in the Neoplatonic framework and that the Cappadocian apophaticism was really just scientific anti-realism in the Neoplatonic context. But I can't make that case out in a combox, so I will have to defer that discussion until I have time to devote a few posts to it.

Anonymous said...

So let's see how well I understand this.

(1) First, this seems Kantian in one sense, but not Kantian in another. It seems Kantian insofar as our abstracted concepts cannot grasp the thing-in-itself; however, if I remember correctly Zubiri thinks that our basic perceptions of reality (I can't remember what he calls it) give us direct access to reality. Thus in this sense it isn't Kantian because when we perceive, we are perceiving the object-itself, not some mere mental phenomena of the object.

(2)But do these substances have essences/forms which are in some way graspable by the mind? Is there room for nature kinds in this philosophy, kinds which are in principle knowable even though such knowledge is much more difficult than e.g. Aristotle would have thought? Or is it the case that or minds grasp the particular but our abstract concepts have no relation to the objects themselves, but *merely* to our experiences of those objects?

I ask (2) this because I am not entirely clear what you mean when you say that we describe our actual experience of reality, but that our intellectual modes do not give us access to the things in themselves.

I can see the value in the phenomenology used here insofar as it a) keeps our life world experience fundamentally basic whereas science is single way of objectifying that reality, which I enthusiastically accept. But does it allow for metaphysical truth? Is there a real dispute between realists and anti-realists over natural kinds, or are they both right as long as their metaphysical schema are each self-consistent, with each option being a correct way of describing being as it appears to us? Or, is all metaphysics just useful in describing reality?

Anonymous said...


Scratch "...of the object" from the end of the first paragraph. Also, scratch the "(a)" in the final paragraph.

CrimsonCatholic said...

I think it might be helpful to distinguish scientific anti-realism from metaphysical anti-realism at this point. Metaphysical realism, at least per Aristotle, says that being is intelligible to the extent that it is in act. I concur with that statement. Where I would differ with Aristotle is in what conclusions we can draw regarding our concepts. Being in a situation in which we can only perceive the activities and the functions of things outside ourselves (viz., we know things only by their characteristic powers (dunameis) and activities (energeiai)), our knowledge is necessarily limited to those things, because we are temporal beings who know things by our own power of intellect. But we cannot penetrate directly to the essences of things to know what they are apart from these manifestations in being. Consequently, every bit of knowledge is cabined by the limitations of our experience.

Zubiri's point, and he echoes the Cappadocians here, is that this leaves one essentially incapable of reaching the depths of any essence. So Zubiri suggests that instead of trying to construct some taxonomy of being, which is never exhaustive even for single things, and slapping the label "knowledge" on it, we should be examining the functional situation that impressed on us this idea that we could know things in the first place.

Given that intellect itself is a function of the person situated within reality, we should dismiss the artificial separation between our knowledge and the reality of the thing (properly understood). In effect, this provides a rigorous account of exactly what it means to know something in an immaterial mode; it is a formal structure of reality between the knower in his situation and the known. The reality of the thing in relation to us just is our experience of the thing; there is a real identity between the knower and the known.

It's that functional identity between the knower and the known that causes me to say that we know reality through scientific inquiry, because what describes the functional relationships between our experiences also describes the formal functional relationships that are impressed upon us. They do actually describe those phenomena as known in reality. But they are not entitative descriptions; they are functional.

It is for this reason that Zubiri dismisses the idea that our knowledge comes solely through the senses, since sensing is the result of a functional relationship between the thing sensed and the man sensing it. What we really know is the experience of sensing, which just is the functional and formal relationship between us and the object.

Zubiri's point is simply that it makes more sense to speak of scientific knowledge in terms of this functional structure of reality, because that is the reality of our experience. One can speculate about essences and piece together definitions, but that is coming at knowledge almost in reverse. It is simply paring off the particular notes of the experience rather than attempting to understand what it is functionally that causes this thing to be by examining the relationship with this thing to you and to your other experiences.

Are there natural kinds? Certainly. But we do not know them as God does; all we can do is to know them in our finitude in terms of their real relationship to us. Part of both the natural kind and humans being finite is that there are limits to how we can know things as well. My scientific anti-realism is simply a way of saying that we are limited in the part of reality to what we can see, and that scrutinizing particulars always involves making functional relationships between our experiences of their activities, never knowing fully what it is in the thing that causes it to be in that relationship.

Here's hoping that didn't make things worse!

Anonymous said...

No, that clears things up a bit. And I understand that anti-realism about science and again about real kinds are two different things. It's just that Zubiri spends so much time innovating that I sometimes have trouble figuring out where he stands on basic questions.

Though maybe this will clear things up a bit more: what is a formal structure, and what is meant by 'functional'? These words have more than one meaning, and I don't know which to use (or even if Zubiri invented a new definition for it).

CrimsonCatholic said...

Though maybe this will clear things up a bit more: what is a formal structure, and what is meant by 'functional'?

Good question, and Zubiri is using these terms in a somewhat novel way by combining them. Ordinarily, one would think of the "form" as causing the thing to be what it is, and the "formed" thing would then exist in relationships with other things (what Zubiri calls the metaphysics of absolute subject). But this is contrary to our experience; what we experience of things is their action, their dynamism in reality, giving us something. What Zubiri does is therefore to create an identity between these two concepts, so that the reality of the thing must be understood in terms of its give-and-take with reality, so that the reality of the thing is not somehow understood as separate from its influence.

So the rock is of itself (de suyo) in some sense; when one kicks it, the rock asserts its solidity. This is, I believe, the concept captured by Maritain's remark that "there is more truth in a cherry between the teeth than all of metaphysics" or by Newton's Third Law of Motion. On the other hand, the rock in relation to me is subject to my reality as well; I can make it into a weapon or a sculpture or a doorstop, I can admire its natural beauty, etc. It's this notion that a rock should (or even can) be defined in its reality apart from things like its give-and-take with other aspects of reality that makes Zubiri's metaphysics distinctive. "Formality" is broadened to include these modes of relating to other things, both the "individual moment" (which is more like the classical concept of form) and the "field moment" (an innovation from physics that describes how even objects viewed as entities have a relational reality).

I think this helps to make rigorous some areas that are "soft" in terms of explanation in Aristotle, like how exactly something is a "material cause" (is in potency with respect to another's act) or how exactly arts and wisdom count as knowledge in the way that scientific knowledge does or how one's biography and historical moment is a present reality. These are all metaphysical matters of real concern to people that have been treated by drawing distinctions, so that St. John of the Cross has his taxonomy of knowledge separated from St. Thomas's, with intelligible form being ascribed to being, while the existence of matter, the intuition of human action, and the experience of human charity are simply a different kind of thing. Zubiri's argument is that by making use of the functional give-and-take concept, one can reproduce this taxonomy simply by understanding the nature of human reality and, moreover, one can symmetrically better understand reality by explaining it in terms of its functions with respect to this reality (looking at individual and field moments, substantivity of notes as action in reality, the de suyo character of this action). Again, the result is no different than Maritain's taxonomy of sciences as speculatively speculative, speculatively practical, practically practical, and practically speculative, but the taxonomy emerges naturally from Zubiri's formalism, where one has to construct it from first principles in Aristotelian metaphysics, which is really coming at the matter backward (one arrives in the end at the conclusion that one might have gained in the first place simply by thinking about intellection as a function of the human being).

This is, incidentally, why I suspect that the author of one of the most hardened Aristotelico-Thomist epistemology tracts (Frederick Wilhelmsen) nonetheless considered Zubiri a brilliant metaphysicist and why I believe he would have appeal to those trained in experimental sciences, to whom Aristotle, while having an extremely sympathetic spirit, can seem somewhat opaque. Absent an interpreter like Maritain or Garrigou-Lagrange, it can be difficult to see why Aristotle says what he does. With Zubiri, it deals with the very reason most scientists do science in the first place: to identify the functional relationships on which our reality is built.

Levi said...

It wasn't any particular philosophical argument so much as being the conclusion that I reached when I was working on being a physicist. Seeing the sheerly bizarre-yet-well-described phenomena in quantum mechanics pretty much convinced me that the fundamental intuition that useful mathematical abstractions correspond to physical entities just wasn't tenable for me anymore.

I thought this might help understand what you least, it did for me:

CrimsonCatholic said...

Good link, Levi. Thanks!