Note to Readers About this Blog

Several years ago, I had intended that main part of this blog should be an extended exploration of the relation between philosophy, science, reason, and Faith. Its goal was to explore the relation between these in a somewhat orderly way, starting with science and philosophy — not quite as if it were a book, but still with some such order in mind. After a while, though, I realized that the project was too ambitious, and would require too much  precision and care for a blog which is inevitably a bit informal. So I stopped writing, but have left it as it was when I stopped. Some day what I intended may appear as a book. In the meantime, I will continue to post occasionally as time permits, but without continuing to aim at a detailed examination of one subject. The idea of a “weblog” fits with what I think I can really do here — so future posts are likely to be more informal, schematic, and possibly aphoristic. Perhaps a few readers may find that more thought provoking that it often is to plod through a completely elaborated book or essay.

On the side are a few lectures and articles, as well as reflections on random topics which I may or may not get to write on more at length some day. (Unfortunately, WordPress requires me to make these “pages” rather than “posts,” and so I can’t give them tags or categories. I’d be happy to find a way around that, if anybody knows of one.)

Thoughtful, friendly comments are welcome! I will try to respond to comments as time allows.

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5 Comments

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  1. Ken Prahl

    While words are understood to be learned in context (i.e., a child uses the word truck just for the toy truck on the floor at first) in other fields, analytic philosophers do not seem to identify the leap from the use of words as behaviors to something other than behavior (including statements, propositions) implied in its use of words. But words even in statements and propositions are still behavior – if removed from their historical precedent don’t they just become letters or sounds?

  2. entirelyuseless

    Are you still planning to continue this project or did you give up, or do it in some other context?

    • sdcojai

      Hello, David. I realized after a while that I really need to do it as a book, and so I’ve put the website work on hold for now. The writing is continuing, but it’s offline for now. I’m leaving what I have online there, with the thought that perhaps it can be of some use to someone.

      Any suggestions you or others have are welcome.

      • entirelyuseless

        Ok, I’ve read everything on the site and I’ll make a few remarks.

        First, I really like what you have to say. I have important disagreements with various things, but generally you’re being much more careful, i.e. much more attentive to reality, than many or most people when they speak or write. And besides that, a lot of it corresponds with thoughts that I have or have had in the past. I will be very interested in reading the book when it’s finished.

        Second, it is unfortunately unlikely that anything I say in a blog comment here can be of much use. You probably already have a plan for the book, so even if I mention some things that aren’t included and seem like good ideas, any book is going to have a limited scope. Apart from that, you have probably thought much more than is written here, so I might not be able to say much that is not already familiar to you, at least in this context.

        That said, some remarks on a few of the issues discussed here, not necessarily in any particular order:

        1. Thought and language. I agree with you about the distinction between words and symbols, but in reality things are a bit vaguer. That is, you say that a word is never meant to substitute for thought, and in some sense this is true formally, but in real life people do this quite a bit. For example, the fact that written words are permanent is not an accident, but was the whole reason for putting them in writing. And the idea is that you would not have to keep something permanently in mind. Even with spoken words, people often use them as a sort of crutch, so that they do substitute for thought to some extent. So for example, someone in a debate might use the words he has already spoken in order to determine what he needs to defend, so that he does not have to work out for himself what should be defended. This obviously can have dreadful effects, but it is there and we need to pay attention to it if only to avoid it, at least insofar as we want to know reality as well as possible; insofar as other motives are involved, the possibility of substitution is actually a benefit of language.

        And speaking of those other motives, you say that an indicative sentence is never formally an instrument of action. I agree that is true formally, but in real life we use indicative sentences as instruments of action constantly. It might be actually impossible to do otherwise, since we always have other motives for speaking besides “express what we know or think,” if only “engage someone in conversation,” “engage in friendship with this person,” and so on. And once again, it is important to recognize that these things are involved because e.g. the choice of each individual word in a sentence is a largely unconscious process, simply because we do not have the time to analyze all the possibilities. This implies that we can easily choose one word rather than another, not because it expresses reality better, but because it better achieves one of these other motives. And that can happen without thinking about it at all.

        2. Aristotle and the history of science. Even Aristotle’s own account implied that science progresses in stages, and he said so. He simply assumed that it had reached its final stage. That was a mistake, and as you said, it would equally be mistake now. According to Aristotle, the world is eternal, and he does not hesitate to draw out the consequences of that: everything which can happen has already happened an infinite number of times. And he says himself that this implies that the sciences are gained and lost infinitely. From this he should have concluded that the sciences stood in a somewhat random position of development, but instead he assumed they had reached perfection.

        I think we are really in a very similar position, even if we do not think the world is eternal. There is no reason to suppose that the sciences now are perfect or even close to perfect.

        3. Causes. Aristotle speaks of causes as “why” a thing is so, and I think that is the right way to think, namely that causes are aspects of explanation, and there is more than one kind of cause because explanation has more than one aspect.

        I don’t necessarily disagree with what you say about force and how people were misled about final causes, but I think there is more to it, that is, there is another reason which led people to divide final and efficient causes as though both could not exist. And that is the idea that “many causes should not be assigned where one suffices.” So if I say, “Why is the milk on the table,” it seems sufficient that I moved it there. That seems to make my motive for putting it there irrelevant, and not part of the cause. I think this is a mistake, but a natural one, as we see in Empedocles where he anticipated the idea of selection: if the fact that teeth grow this way has efficient causes, there is no need for a final cause. C.S. Lewis also provides an example of this when he says outright that a statement “has either a cause or reason” but not both. That is, according to him, if there is an efficient cause of the fact that you said something, then you could not have been motivated by a reason. But in fact a reason is to be understood to move in the mode of a final cause. It is because I love the truth of the reason, that I must hold that for which it is a reason, in order not to abandon the truth of the reason. And just as in the cases of the teeth and the milk, efficient causes and final causes are not mutually exclusive, because they are different aspects of the same explanation.

        4. Faith and reason. It is certainly true that there is an analogy between the way a person puts his faith in religious doctrines and in the ideas of a scientific community. But it is only an analogy, and there are also very large differences. One in particular, and probably the one that mainly motivates the objections, is that there really is a way in which there is only one science for one scientific community, and that is the case despite the fact that there are disagreements in science. And there most definitely is not only one religion in that sense. If there were only one religion in exactly the same way that there is only one science, the analogy would be almost completely accurate, and essentially everyone would accept that religion, just as nearly everyone accepts “science.”

        Also, once someone holds a view, it is normal for them to be tempted to set out a single knock-down argument in favor of the view, but it does not really represent well why they hold that view. The same thing is true of communities as they change their opinions over time. If you ask them to explain why they think what they do, they may give a relatively simple argument, but the real reasons are more complicated. I think this is definitely true both of religious and non-religious opinions.

        In relation to that, some of your writing here seems to suggest that if only we can remove the relevant philosophical and scientific errors, everyone will see that there are no strong objections to religious faith. I strongly disagree with that, and I don’t expect us to agree on it, but I can point to some of the factors that would be involved. In reality it was not only a matter of philosophical ideas about how science should work, that led people generally in a direction that did not sit well with faith. It was also concrete discoveries about how the world is. In particular, people had ideas about the history of the earth taken largely from the book of Genesis, ideas which were completely refuted by geology and biology. Now of course the apparent claims of the book of Genesis about that history were never the central elements of Christianity or even Judaism. But people undeniably held mistaken views, and they undeniably held them at least largely because of what was written there. And this is hardly the only point where people found that their religion misled them.

        At one point Rod Dreher apparently banned me from his blog (that is, he stopped approving my comments for a while, although he has approved some recently) because I objected when he made fun of people who think 1) religion provides many benefits to people, 2) Christianity and other religions that claim to be revealed are not true, 3) therefore they should look for ways to obtain the benefits mentioned in (1) in other ways than by believing in Christianity or other religions. Dreher basically said that was ridiculous: if you want those benefits, you should accept Christianity. I said that there was nothing ridiculous about it, if you have concrete reasons for thinking that Christianity is not true, but also reasons to think that religion can be beneficial to people.

        In general, since your book must have a limited scope, I would not expect it to be a work of apologetics. But I think it would be reasonable to acknowledge that the problems are not only philosophical.

        5. I have a lot more thoughts, but this is getting long and I’m not even sure if WordPress has a limit on its comments.

  3. sdcojai

    I’m grateful for your comments, David, and I’ll look forward to thinking them over a bit. My writing isn’t so far advanced that I couldn’t profit from more of your thoughts, if you wish to share them.

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