Wolfe’s den

It’s been awhile since I’ve done any sort of expose on the state of the union. However, reading this makes me want to.

What I love about Tom Wolfe: his prose flows with factual power and the skepticism of a child, not of the nihilist or contemptuous cynic, and he doesn’t stick to exposes. No. He’ll toss in philosophy, literature, and plenty of mot justes β€” for the sake of realism, not ostentation.

9 thoughts on “Wolfe’s den

  1. Though Wolfe’s prose may not flow as that of the nihilist, I find neuroscience to be a powerful inducement to nihilism. As a (erstwhile) scientist, I find the evidence for this deterministic, empiricist mindset rather convincing. As a Christian, I want desperately to believe otherwise. That cognitive dissonance is not a pleasant environment in which to dwell. I’ve actually had this conversation with my friend S. Lee at http://neurophd.blogspot.com/, as he is a neuroscientist himself. And he is also a Christian, although a rather unique kind.

    What troubles me is really twofold. One, despite all the evidence, I want to belive the “ghost in the machine” fallacy. For otherwise, what or where is our soul? And two follows from that: if everything is predetermined, then what space do we have for any conception of obedience to God? This is more serious than Calvin v. Arminius, for at the heart of this debate is the existence of God in the first place.

  2. Though I am far from being any kind of expert in neuroscience or even science in general (my main claim being that I was raised by a scientist), I had this conversation today too. And though the evidence is that there is no ghost, no specific location of conscience, the fact remains that we seem to be born with one… a “moral generative grammar,” to quote one philosopher jumping from a linguistic standpoint. Yet we seem able to rebel against it… determinism or no… to flout our morals, to feel guilt, to return again. And, maybe, given “a computer complex enough” one could determine exactly the breaking point of certain individuals, given this factor, this factor, this factor, this factor. But even that would not deny the existence of God. As Wolfe points out, a major downfall to the study of our minds is the finiteness of our minds. And I imagine God laughs a bit at us, sweating over it like this, and maybe he says, like he does in Job, answer me this, if you know so much: what ARE time and space and joy, if not mysteries made by me?

    I doubt our souls have genes. I’m not sure what “part” of us will live on, but I can’t imagine it will be found in our DNA.

  3. Neuroscience is the frosting on the cake. You have to get out that big knife and cut down through all the layers, twice, pull the triangle out onto your plate, and do the two tasks that follow – analyze while you eat. Nathan – enjoy the synaptic transmissions that allow you to even form your dissonance, and rejoice in the terrifying beauty of this created world – one heartbeat at a time.

    The first task of the rational man is to measure the limits of his reason. GTB

  4. Hi, thanks for posting about such an interesting article. I have taken some time to think about this myself:

    Looking for a consciousness area in the brain is probably not the most fruitful way of approaching the problem. Instead I think that neurobiology has benefitted from thinking about consciousness as an emergent property. But the fact remains that, until we have a good definition of consciousness (or a soul, for that matter), it will remain an intractable problem from the standpoint of biology. For an interesting though technical read, pick up Christof Koch’s “Quest for Consciousness.”

  5. Nathan,

    Consider the terminology of “Ghost in the Machine.” If there is a ghost in the machine, and we find it through scientific examination, then, well it isn’t a ghost anymore, it’s just part of the machine. The ghost is that which is other than the machine, but science only examines the machine, for that is its limited prerogative. Since science only examines the machine, it cannot speak authoritatively as to whether the ghost exists; science is naturalism, and the mind is supernaturalism. Scientific conclusions denying the existence of the will are like a musician making pronouncements about quantum mechanics, or a British court trying to adjudicate an American case.

    Therefore if something is to answer the Ghost in the Machine problem, it must appeal to authorities other than Science. In this age, Science has acquired a certain megalomania considering itself the only reasonable authority. It is a reliable authority, but its jurisdiction is more limited than it would have us believe.

  6. Lincoln – certainly, parsing the phrase will give you that conclusion. But that is starting from the other end, if you will: the realm of philosophy and linguistics. From a philosophical standpoint I find (as do most serious philosophers) very little evidence, and most of it poor, for empiricism. What concerns me is that I like consistency, and I want pieces to fit in a cohesive whole that I can conceptualize. And if science appears to prove some piece of reality, that piece must fit in the broader metaphysic. Philosophy, understood as a rigourous application of reason to the question of reality, can sometimes give very different answers than what science does. The trick, of course, is to harmonize the two. I wrote about this on my own blog but I think I sidestepped the question a little. The source of my “cognitive dissonance” as I rather pretentiously phrased it, is this attempt at harmonization.

    What you are arguing is something like Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria, which solution I find less than satisfactory from a Christian perspective. If God created all things, then in God all things can be understood. I am just trying to do so, while being honest with myself as both scientist and philosopher.

    I know I’m biased, but I highly recommend S.Lee’s post linked above.

  7. Nathan,

    Grappling with this goes a good degree beyond what is possible in the comments section of a blog. Should you wish to discuss this more, feel free to email me at anotherdayisgone at hotmail dot com. Nevertheless, I’ll attempt a not-so-brief reply here.

    1) The first question we have to answer is one of epistemological authority. As I see it, the three types of authorities are empirical, rational and revelatory.

    a) Empirical: I am troubled by your statement that there is little evidence for empiricism – perhaps you define the term differently. Moreover, as I understand it, most of the serious philosophers of the human race believed, at least implicitly, in empiricism. The very nature of evidence, which we interpret through our senses, is empirical. All evidence for everything, including the proposition of empiricism, is empirical, and there is no evidence, or even the possibility of evidence, to the contrary. The only reason we have to doubt empiricism is the simple fact of our doubt, our worry over the wiles of Descartes’ Evil Demon.

    The quality of empiricism is ultimately judged by the weight of the evidence for a proposition.

    b) Rational: Reason is a process authority rather than a substantive authority. As C.S. Lewis explained in his “Pilgrim’s Regress,” Reason does not speak the truth, but rather shines the light on it; Reason pulls that which is in the dark part of your mind into the light, extracting hidden truths from the necessary implications of that which is given. Reason is reliable because it cannot be doubted unless the rational process is used to doubt.

    The quality of Reason is ultimately the strength of the logical or mathematical connections, deductive or inductive, between the premises and the conclusion.

    c) Revelatory: Fundamentally, revelation is a faith-based authority. While faith is always blind in a sense, it also relies on something to justify its vesting in an authority. That justification may come, for instance, from past experience (he’s never been wrong before), credentials (the man’s a Ph.D.), or power (God knocks you down on the road to Damascus, and the fearful quaking of your being compels your submission to the truth He preaches).

    The quality of revelatory knowledge is judged by the empirical-rational justification for faith in the authority, combined with the proportional degree of trust placed in that authority.

    2) We may now turn to the matter at hand. Science and philosophy need not be harmonized because they are not concurrent disciplines, but rather hierarchical; science is a species of the genus philosophy. Philosophy, the love of wisdom, seeks to explain the whole of existence, but science, viewed properly, is only there to explain part of existence, the natural world. Correct science would only produce a different conclusion than correct philosophy when the conclusion of science was contextualized, and the philosophical conclusion universal. Most often, science presents different conclusions than philosophy when science thinks it is philosophy, as when Stephen Hawking readies the troops for moon colonies and Richard Dawkins muses on the meaning of values apart from God.

    Assuming a degree of uniformitarianism in the natural world, science makes hypotheses about that world, and uses procedure to observe whether the there is consistent evidence that the world functions consistently according to that hypothesis. But if there is a real “mind” in the classic sense, or a soul, or anything supernatural, they cannot be explained by science, because by definition they function according to a different system in which it would be improper to assume common principles such as uniformitarianism.

    If there is interaction between the natural and the supernatural (the mind body problem), then the natural world will contain evidence of the supernatural, but not to the extent that natural hypotheses and procedures may be appropriately used to test and observe it. Thus the supernatural has been relegated, appropriately, to the realm of the revelatory and the presuppositional, because each one of us feels like we have a mind, and thinks there is something bigger out there.

    It may be, perhaps, that there is no supernatural, and the natural world is the whole show. But scientists should not speak as though their procedures and hypotheses could even suggest such a thing.

    It’s a pleasure discussing this with you, and I did take a look at your blog, as well as S. Lee’s. I’d like to read more. If you’d like to read some of my philosophical rants, you can find some of the more interesting ones on the sidebar “Urgent Philosophy” at http://lincolndavis.blogspot.com

    Sehr Danke,


  8. Lincoln – Thank you for your rather exhuastive (but still lucid) reply. Briefly, my clarifications/objections are as follows.

    Empiricism I would define as one of the basic tenets of Marxism, namely that there is no absolute but matter. I think most serious philosophers, precisely because of Descartes’ demon and his ideological progeny, would disagree. The very fact that they belive in reason, and that reason can discover “truth” (a truth outside matter) is proof of that.

    Science is concerned with explaining matter, and hence, it tries to explain all things in terms of matter, ne plus ultra.

    Both science and philosophy, when attempting to explain the whole of existence, rely to some degree on extrapolation. The conflict is that their extrapolations point at different answers.

    I have loyalties to both camps, a mind inclined to science by dint of my profession, and to philosophy in a more hobby fashion. Additionally, I am a Christian, which gives me a framwork in which all other observations fit.

    My trouble then, is more three-fold, as I see it. One, reconciling science, which attempts to explain the world in strictly empirical terms, with the rational, truth affirming nature of philosophy, and the second is the reverse. Both sides must retain their principles however. And the third, most complicated aspect, is determining how we are to understand the conclusions reached in light of God and His revelation, seeing the shape of that framework, if you will. To use a tired (and possibly innaccurate) example, after Galileo, the church had to adjust its dogma to fit what was revealed through observation of the natural world. Now, in retrospect, we can see that the church had made claims outside the true concern of the Bible, based on a poor reading of it.

    As you said, this is a bit beyond the comments section of a blog (even so fine a blog as this;), so I’ll check out yours, and drop you a line sometime. Right now though, I’ve got to go to work. πŸ™‚

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