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Saturday in the Land of Indeterminate Season (Another Addendum)

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So I’ve gotten to the end of another bizarre week–the craziness OUGHT to end about two weeks from now–and for the last little while I’ve been thinking over a few things.

So let me answer them, and I’ll get back to real life and The Defense afterwards.

First, I tried to say this outright, but it seems not to have gotten across–between The Defense Part 9 and the Defense Part 10–that is, between the last two posts that actually advanced the argument–I looped back and restarted that particular part of the discussion that the first of the two posts was supposed to have started.

I did that because I had a number of complaints saying that it seemed like I had wandered off and started talking about something else.  I looked back and decided that there was some merit to the complaint. I don’t think I really was on a different subject, but I do think I was distracted and disorganized.

So, if you’re following the argument and want the linear impact of it, just skip that first one and start in on the second as if it had come immediately after what came before.  In terms of the development of the defense, it does.

The second is this–AB claims that I first say I am not defending the proposition that a liberal arts education makes morally better people, and then I go on to defend it.

I think I’d be a little less impatient with this if AB presented himself as the sort of borderline illiterate I see coming out of the colleges these days–unfamiliar with rhetorical forms and literary devices.  But AB seems to me to be very literate indeed.  So literate that it’s been rather curious.  When he/she first posted, the overall literary style seemed nowhere near as good, and the level of maturity seemed a lower than it does now. 

That is, I suppose, given the nature of the Internet, one of those minor mysteries I’ll never be able to solve.

That said, I’ve been–as I’ve pointed out–perfectly clear about what I’m doing. 

First I’ve said that I do not believe the proposition to be true.

Next I’ve said that I think that even if the proposition is true, there would be no way to prove it–and no evidence that would really be evidence.

Then I’ve said that I’m going to stop for a while and look into what reasons there MIGHT be to say that the proposition COULD be true.

This is a perfectly ordinary device in exposition, and I don’t see any reason to continually and forever explain and re-explain it, as if none of us were capable of reading on a level much higher than a modern dumbed-down textbook.

So there’s the last explanation of it, and I’m just going to go on doing it until I’ve played this out.

The other thing concerns the nature of evidence.  Yes, it is perfectly legitimate to demand that someone making making a claim provide evidence of the truth or falsity of tha claim. 

What is not so legitimate is to demand that said person provide evidence AS YOU HAVE DEFINED IT of that claim.

Standards of evidence are shared, or they’re irrelevant.

In this discussion, I’ve got two problems with the standards of evidence being demanded of me.

The first has to do with whether or not  Medieval–early and late–education treated Aristotle as Sacred Scripture, causing his works to be learned by rote and never questioned.

But AB has provided no evidence for the proposition that this was so.  He’s merely stated it, as if it were a self-evident fact, and demanded that I provide evidence to the contrary.

Nice try.

I’ve got a fairly broad acquaintance with the original source material from this period.  Nothing in it that I know of would support the proposition that the schools of this period taught Aristotle or any Pagan author as work to be accepted by pupils uncritically.

The first claims that such was the case came in the Renaissance, and they came with an increasing volume in the Reformation and the Enlightenment–and they came, universally, from men with a vested interest in portraying the Middle Ages (and thereby the Catholic Church of that period) as anti-science and anti-reason.

In the world in which I live, the bald, unsubstantiated claims of men with a vested interest in the outcome of the argument and who  have no direct experience of the phenomena they claim to be describing do not outweigh the reports of men who were on the scene at the time and who wrote down what they actually did. 

This is especially the case when those people are corroborated by many others experience the same phenomena.

So, either the schools of the Middle Ages, early and late, took pains to teach students to question Pagan sources, or there existed a vast conspiracy across the European continent that lasted literally hundreds of years to pretend they did.

I write murder mysteries, but this is a bit too much for me.

Proper evidence that the schools of the Middle Ages taught the works of the Pagans in a rote-learning, never-questioning, sacred-scripture sort of way would require providing original source material that this was so, not some quote out of a textbook saying it was so.

And evidence that such rote learning and unquestioning adulation was being applied to the works of Aristotle in the schools that arose through Gregory the Great’s reforms will be nonexistent.

Gregory, like Augustine before him and Alcuin as well, was not an Aristotlean, he was a neoPlatonist. 

It was Plato, not Aristotle, who was considered the standard of Pagan wisdom  before the 12th Century.

That being said, there’s plenty of original source material out there if you want to look at it, books and what we would call essays, but also letters of instruction from abbots to schoolmasters or schoolmasters to teachers.  Charlemagne could neither read nor write, but there remains an enormous correspondence under his name about the educational reforms he championed in the newly.  Most of these were written by Alcuin, who served as Charlemagne’s private secretary and the operational office for those educational reforms.  Alcuin was also one of the greatest and most vigorous educational reformer of the period.

The last thing concerns, of course, the issue of determinism vs. choice.  

AB says that there is evidence of determinism around us every day, and that he “cannot believe that any thinking person fails to find evidence of determinism, and in great abundance, while there is a conspicuous lack of evidence to the contrary.

I copied and pasted that, just to make sure.

But on the first half, I agree with him–you don’t even have to be able to think that well to find ample evidence of determinism all around you.

On the second half I do disagree–not only is there no evidence of choice, there is continual and endless evidence of it to every single person every single day–and to cats and dogs, too, if they can think abstractly. 

What is an event of choice?

An event of choice occurs when Subject A is presented with a number of possibilities for a future course of action (or thought, for that matter) and is able to adopt any one of them, and is not compelled to adopt any one of them.

So I get up in the morning.  I look in my closet.  I have five possible blouses to wear to teach.  I go through them and think over their merits (that one’s heavy and would be good if it got cold later, that one’s orange and it makes me look like an orangutan) and eventually adopt one as the one to wear.

Three minutes later, putting the thing on, I start to think about it again–and change for another one.

It is, of course, possible, that at the level of atoms and molecules, this is not what is happening, and I only have the illusion that the eventual act–adoption of one of the blouses for work today–is under my control.

But there is  no evidence that this is so.  You can certainly provide just-so stories as to how it MIGHT be true, but that is not the same thing as evidence.  Such accounts are not science, or even philosophy.  They’re theology. 

If you’re really commited to evidence-based inquiry, then you are required to accept the date you’re given.  And you’re enjoined from explaining it away because it doesn’t fit your preconcieved ideas of how nature should be.

As for what a non-choice event would be–take the digestion in your stomach after you’ve eaten a meal, which goes on without your knowledge or consent.  Take rocks coming down a mountain during an avalanche. 

These events are determined absolutely–neither the rocks nor your stomach could have done differently.  The activities were compelled by the totality of the physical facts and could not have been otherwise.

A non choice event  is compelled by the totality of its circumstances.

A choice event COULD have been otherwise.

If you look at a choice event, it exhibits just that distinction, every time, and you experience such events dozens of times, if not hundreds, every waking day of your life.

If you want to say that your experience of those events is an illustion, and that there is really compulsion under the service that we simply fail to detect–well, fine, but then show me evidence of that.

And, as I say, not just just-so stories, or declaration that that HAS to be the case because otherwise science wouldn’t be possible, or whatever.

I like to stick to the realm of observed reality.

And I’m not unaware of the fact that determinism as we presently formulate it would be incapable of either predicting or explaining Newton, Marx, or the Apollo moon landing.

I have to go teach.

Written by janeh

October 8th, 2011 at 8:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Saturday in the Land of Indeterminate Season (Another Addendum)'

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  1. Medieval education is your field and not mine. Can you tell us when Aristotelian physics was actually put to the test, which might be a pretty good date to work from? My understanding was Renaissance.


    8 Oct 11 at 10:06 am

  2. “I’ve got a fairly broad acquaintance with the original source material from this period. Nothing in it that I know of would support the proposition that the schools of this period taught Aristotle or any Pagan author as work to be accepted by pupils uncritically.

    The first claims that such was the case came in the Renaissance, and they came with an increasing volume in the Reformation and the Enlightenment–and they came, universally, from men with a vested interest in portraying the Middle Ages (and thereby the Catholic Church of that period) as anti-science and anti-reason.”

    The claim that uncritical acceptance was taught for hundreds of years leaves us with the question of why did people suddenly begin to criticize?


    8 Oct 11 at 3:44 pm

  3. 1.

    On Thanksgiving Day, it may rain, or it may snow, or neither. The wind may blow from the north, or from the south, or not at all. These are “choices” the weather makes, and we cannot predict them. In fact, it is possible to prove (deterministically) that there are limits to how far in advance the weather can possibly be predicted. Yet every raindrop, every snowflake, every moving atom of air* obeys the laws of physics with at least as much precision as can be measured. No exceptions are ever observed.

    Every atom and electron that makes up a human being follows the exact same laws, and again there are no exceptions. Every move you make, every breath you take, every figment of your imagination is caused – perfectly and completely – by deterministic chemical mechanisms. Nerve cells do not “choose” to fire; they are triggered by other nerve cells and ultimately by the past and present physical environment.

    Unpredictability does not arise from “choice.” It arises from imperfect information and the nature of complex non-linear systems – that is, from the so-called Butterfly Effect. When there are relatively very few variables – as when plotting the trajectory of an Apollo mission, for instance – prediction can be very precise. When there are a large number of variables – as when forecasting the birth and life of a specific person – prediction is predictably impossible.

    “Could have been” is an illusion; reality permits exactly one outcome, and to assert that something else was “possible” is mere speculation. “I could have worn orange,” “I could have won the lottery,” and “the sea could have turned to blood” are all equal reflections of choice; the difference consists in how these non-occurrences are subjectively perceived.

    A subjective experience of “choice” is not sufficient to show that any “options” truly existed. I can imagine things that seemed to have been possible, and things that seemed impossible; both are equally imaginary. I may think that I had my reasons for pulling the trigger, but only a chemical reaction can fire the nerve that contracts the muscle that moves the finger.

    If you want evidence of this, you are asking merely for evidence of the universality of natural law. I think this is amply demonstrated; even an apparent violation of currently understood law is by now a very rare event, and is usually quickly resolved by finding an error in either the observation or (ocassionally) the current understanding of law. To suppose that the human nervous system does not conform to natural law is not only inconsistent with all observations, it demands special pleading.


    You may be correct about the treatment of pagan philosophers in Medieval education. All the sources I have read disagree, but they are not primary sources – I can’t think offhand of any Medieval work I’ve read other than Anselm’s notorious ontological “proof” and an excerpt here and there from Aquinas. I have to admit, regretfully, that I am not equipped to pursue this debate further.

    Karl der Grosse, incidentally, is said to have learned to read, at age 70(!) (though he was never able to write). For some guys, building an empire and rebuilding a civilization just aren’t enough.


    I know you are not obligated to argue any point to the bitter end, whether you agree with it or not. But what’s the point of arguing it at all, if you don’t fight to the utmost? If the debate ends with my original knowledge and logic intact, I have learned nothing, and where’s the fun in that? The discussion of Medieval education has been instructive, but my perspective on modern education remains unexpanded – and that was the origin of this little discursion in the first place.

    *Poetic license. Sue me.


    8 Oct 11 at 6:09 pm

  4. I don’t find the claim that choice is merely an illusion and everything, down to my choice of clothing to wear, is determined by some long chain of biochemical reactions. I certainly don’t see how you’d prove it (or the contrary, actually). I don’t think even apparent violations of current are now very rare – if they were, all those physicists looking for a GUT would be out of work – and stating that a nervous system must conform to ‘natural law’, by which you seem to mean determinism neither makes that true nor proves that everything that affects behaviour is caused by the actions of the nervous system.

    Determinism sounds like a rather simple approach to explaining the actions of living creatures – no matter what evidence may exist that seems to show that people and animals make choices, they are really merely responding to stimuli in a way that is completely out of their control. And I know this because…well, because there can’t be any other cause of their response. And I know THAT because scientists have successfully figured out how to predict quite a large (and increasing) responses of physical objects to physical stimuli, whereas their discoveries in neuroscience, haven’t gotten to that point. But we know that they will, right? And we’ll learn that mind etc are merely delusions caused by neurons.

    That seems to me to be going way beyond any evidence.


    8 Oct 11 at 7:10 pm

  5. I’m with you, Cheryl. When I go to visit our friend JD in his eyrie at Wollongong, I have a choice of three quite distinct routes between there and my home in Canberra. Two of those routes involve climbing a precipitous escarpment on narrow, winding roads carved out of the mountainside. This is coastal rainforest country and apart from the normal heightened traffic hazards on such roads, they are also subject to frequent rock slides and falling trees.

    I’m perfectly happy to accept that my choice to take one of those inherently more perilous routes on any given occasion might be “determined” by my wish to pick up a cherry pie from a famous pie shop at the top of the mountain, and that this desire might have been “determined” by certain synapses firing in response to some in-built natural trigger. I’m also prepared to accept that the rockslide that kills me might have been “determined” strictly by the laws of nature ultimately triggered by forces generated by a butterfly flapping its wings on its normal seasonal migration in continental North America.

    But I’m not prepared to accept that my death was “determined” by anything other than mere coincidence which, given the essentially random nature of coincidence, pretty much means that my death was not determined by anything at all, least of all a liking for cherry pie.


    8 Oct 11 at 8:32 pm

  6. Now, now. Mustn’t make fun of the determinists. They can’t help what they say. The poor fellows are more like machines, really–just a mass of circuitry acting on their programing, and can’t be held morally accoutable for their own actions.

    It’s very bad form for those of us blessed with free will to mock them. Fortunately, they can’t, by their own principles take umbrage, any more than they’d take a malfunctioning toaster oven as an affront.

    When I meet a determinist who’s never offended by anyone else’s behavior, I’ll know that one is sincere.

    But are we not wandering somewhat from the proper form and predictable consequences of a liberal education?


    8 Oct 11 at 11:23 pm

  7. Excellent, my friend, excellent! No irony wasted here. But of course I can’t help it if I take umbrage. Why, I can’t even decide what to think!


    9 Oct 11 at 2:39 am

  8. every atom and electron follows the same physical laws but those laws give probabilities not exact predictions.


    9 Oct 11 at 4:36 am

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