Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Presumptions and the first law of general ignorance

As I sit here typing on my computer, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the wealth of knowledge and benefits science has brought us.  In fact, it’s so easy that we have to a great extent forgotten the appalling depths of our ignorance.

How can I say that?  Very simple: the quantity of unknowns in the universe is by definition unknowable.  This gives us Layne’s First Law of General Ignorance: We don’t know how much we don’t know.  If we know, then, that the extent of our ignorance is unknowable, we know that at least one thing is unknowable.  But we don’t know if there’s anything else that Man cannot comprehend or will not be able to comprehend at some future date.  Therefore, the corollary to the First Law: We don’t know how much we can’t know.

Got a headache yet?

Most thought systems have to start with at least some assumptions that neither need nor admit of proof.  For instance, you can’t get anywhere in plane geometry if you don’t accept that “a line is the shortest distance between two points”, or in algebra if a2 = b2 + c2 is merely an opinion.  Likewise, reason has a fundamental assumption that “a thing cannot both be and not-be at the same time and in the same manner”.

Why can’t we take atheism as self-evidential?  This seems to be the answer the New Atheist prefers, given that philosophers since Socrates have known that it’s impossible to prove that something does not exist.  In law, we take it as a necessary presumption of justice that a person accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty.  Are there not situations in which we can safely presume that a theory is false until proven true?

Monday, November 26, 2012

C. S. Lewis, memes and logical positivism

Liturgically, the Christmas season is still five weeks and change away; we’re not even into Advent yet.  Alas, we’re governed by the marketing calendar, which begins to push us to buy for one holiday before the previous holiday is spent.  The leaves down here in north-central Texas just turned to fall colors yesterday, and the Muzak is already cranking out “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

This is also the time of year when American Atheists begin grunting out steaming mounds of “Bah! Humbug!” on the seemingly forgotten religious aspect of the season. 

I’ve written before on some of the problems the atheist must overcome before he can truly claim his position is rational, let alone based on scientific fact.  Largely the problems are philosophical in nature; the error lies not in the structure of the argument but in the initial assumptions.  Ultimately, if your foundation is nothing but sand, it doesn’t matter how well you build the superstructure — it will fall, and great will be the fall of it (cf. Mt 7:26-27).

But the New Atheist is, for the most part, not a philosopher.  In fact, more often than not he rejects formal philosophy, as it seemingly consists of people speculating without adequate basis in verifiable fact; as one person put it to me, it’s “just a bunch of people’s subjective opinions”.  That this demand for verifiable fact is itself a philosophical position — logical positivism — and as such suffers from self-referential incoherence[1] is an irony that passes him by.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

How soon we forget

French military cemetery at Douaumont (via Wikimedia).

I’ve already passed along this story on The ImpracticalCatholic.  But there’s another topic it fits, and “waste not, want not”:

The British Airways flight had just landed at Orly[1] and pulled up to the terminal.  Amidst the usual arrival bustle, an aged British gentleman was searching his carry-on bag for his passport.
A fellow passenger, a stern French woman, noticed his search, and asked, “Have you been to France before?”
The man, still searching, quietly replied, “I have.”
“Well, then,” the woman sniffed with stereotypical Gallic hauteur, “you should know to have your passport out and waiting, sir.”
“The last time I was here,” the Brit shrugged, “I didn't have to show my passport.”
“Impossible!” the woman snapped.  “You British have always had to show your passports to come in to France!”
Whereupon the Englishman stopped his search, stepped close to the lady, and whispered to her, “Well, when I landed on the beach in Normandy in June of 1944, I couldn’t find any f***ing Frenchman to show it to!”

Richard Collins of Linen on the Hedgerow said I’d “lightened Remembrance Sunday” for him.  For my American readers, Remembrance Sunday, observed the second Sunday of November, is in some ways a more solemn event than our Veteran’s Day.  Throughout the United Kingdom red poppies, in wreaths and baskets and single flowers, decorate every monument and marker raised to those who died in the two great world wars (and by extension all who died for King/Queen and Country).  The red poppy recalls the poem “In Flanders Field” by Col. John McCrae.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The next four years

… I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever ….
—Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1782)

First published in 1969 ... coincidence?
Oddly enough, the sun came up Tuesday morning, and shone on a nation that hadn’t been blasted into oblivion by a wrath-ridden God.  Of course, Christ’s sacrifice changed the nature of our relationship to God, so we just can’t count on the unrighteous to get a good smiting, no matter how desperately they need it.

Yes, yes, I’m kidding.  To be sure, I did my share of moaning and kvetching (and drinking) Tuesday night.  But I wasn’t at the point of some of my Catholic blogger brethren, who were moaning that America is dead — done, finis, that’s a wrap folks.  Perhaps Karl Marx’s dead hand is leading us to the materialist workers’ paradise of the USSA, where the only purpose in human life is to work, party and screw, but we’re not there yet.

I really have no desire to engage in the usual “Monday morning quarterbacking” that traditionally follows an election.  Theories as to how and why Mitt Romney won’t be taking office this next January will be as abundant and variegated as a field of flowers, and many if not most of them will be true to various extents.  Perhaps the dissection will bear fruit someday … just probably not in 2016, when different candidates and different hot-button issues will obtain.

But as I was standing in line at a local Baptist church waiting to cast my ballot, I noticed a display stand the members had set up to advertise their mission efforts — was it Somalia?  China?  Senegal?  And I thought to myself, Why are these people sending evangelists halfway around the world when the most crucial mission territory is right outside their doors? To use a Lincolnism, it’s like letting out the front of the house when the back of the house is on fire.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The elephant in the wage-gap room

Is there a real “wage gap” problem?  Like so many other human issues, the answer is both “no” and “yes”.

The wage gap argument centers around the long-standing factoid that women make about three-quarters as much money as do men (in the third quarter of 2012, it was about 82.7%).  There is some variance according to race, with black women leading at 93.2%, Hispanic women at 87.5%, white women at 83.4% and Asian women at 73.1%.  Moreover, this disparity seems to hold across the various categories of jobs, whether we speak of “Management, professional and related occupations” (72.9%) or of “Transportation and material moving occupations” (76.5%).[1]

The best that can be said about the BLS statistics is that, if they don’t give us apples-to-apples comparisons, they at least give us fruit to fruit, root vegetable to root vegetable.  Nevertheless, for social science purposes, they’re more like meat saws and butcher’s cleavers than the precision instruments we want for exploratory surgery.  (Sorry for the mixed metaphors.)

Going apples-to-apples paints a different picture.  According to Diana Furchtgott-Roth, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, “if the male counterparts are in the same job with the same experience,” women actually make about 95 cents on the male dollar.[2]  Also, men who work full-time average about 8.3 hours a day, while women average about 7.21 hours — about 13.1% less;[3] even in salaried occupations, the person who puts more time in at the office will be paid more.  Carrie Lukas, writing in the Wall Street Journal, noted that this difference alone accounts for more than one-third of the wage gap.[4]

Friday, November 2, 2012

Come now, let us reason together

Kinda puts "combox martyrdom" into perspective, don't it?
Originally published on October 10, 2011, I may find myself re-posting this reflection every year or so.  Not because it's so gosh-darn well-written or witty, but to remind myself that those who won't be polite to others should not expect politeness for themselves.
*     *    * 
On October 1 on The Impractical Catholic I posted the news out of Rockford, Illinois that the state Department of Public Health had suspended the license of the Northern Illinois Women’s Center, an abortion mill most notable for the anti-Catholic antics of its owner and employees, and now established as completely uncaring of their patients’ health. After making some grimly celebratory remarks, especially on how access is far more important to the hard-core pro-aborts than is women’s health, I added a YouTube clip of Queen’s video “Another One Bites the Dust”.

The only comment I got was this piece of whiny snottiness:

I find it quite ironic that you use a song that was written and performed [by] a *gasp* HOMOSEXUAL to celebrate this.
Why do I even waste my time, we all know you are going to keep on trying to keep others down ....

I no longer make any attempts to prove I’m a nice guy with plenty of friends both straight and gay, conservative and liberal, Catholic and non-Catholic. For one thing, people like “Poosy” don’t listen, don’t care, and won’t believe me anyway. For another, it reminds me too much of the old Jewish joke about anti-Semites: “Some of my best friends are Jews.” So of course “Poosy” finds it ironic: in the cramped, angry little box of her ideology, I’m not allowed to have gay friends or to appreciate good music performed by homosexuals because it would detract from my all-encompassing homophobia.