Reflections on Charles Taylor: the Problem of the Mind

Charles Taylor, in his A Secular Age, points out at least three areas where the Western world is caught in tension:

1. Agency: we are caught between the belief that we are purely determined beings and the belief that we are active, building, creating, shaping agents.

2. Ethics: we are caught between the belief that we have biological instincts and base drives and the belief that we have higher spiritual/ethical motives.

3. Aesthetics: we are caught between the belief that beauty is a mere biological response to stimuli and the belief that beauty moves us because it hints at meaning and transcendence.

There are many more areas of tension, a fourth one being the mind. Many ordinary people, not just professional philosophers, have agonized over whether or not the mind is actually able to connect to the world through knowledge. Is the apple really red, and can my mind have true knowledge that the apple is actually red?

Consider three common explanations of the mind:

Nietzchean anti-humanism: the mind is atoms smashing together and we can’t be sure it works.

Secular humanism: the mind works because true thoughts confer an evolutionary advantage. The mind harbors lies and error because there are evolutionary kinks to be worked out.

Christianity: The human mind works because it is patterned after the Divine mind; humans are the image of God. The human mind works imperfectly, harboring lies and error, because of the contamination of sin. Jesus says worship is loving God with our whole heart, whole soul, and whole mind. The truth sets us free, and we must forsake lies.

This triad is a bit of an oversimplification, but a helpful one: many modern people don’t fit neatly into one category, but are being pulled in at least three different directions. Believers are tempted by unbelief; non-believers are tempted by belief; and skeptics are tempted by certainty. Where are you right now, and where are you being pulled?

 

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Phonics versus Look-and-Say

The problem of illiteracy perplexes American educators. One possible explanation for illiteracy is that Americans abandoned the old method that was highly successful (phonics) for a new method that has proven a failure (look-and-say):

“In 1955, Rudolf Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read, which explained precisely why the problem with reading instruction in U.S. schools. He said, ‘So, ever since 1500 B.C. people all over the world–wherever an alphabetic system of writing was used–learned how to read and write by the simple process of memorizing the sound of each letter in the alphabet…This is not miraculous, it’s the only natural system of learning how to read.’ Flesch notes that every single nation throughout history with an alphabet taught reading in this way–except ‘twentieth-century Americans–and other nations insofar as they followed our example. And what do we use instead?…We have decided to forget that we write with letters and learn to read English as if it were Chinese.’

“The educational establishment did not respond well to Flesch’s observations. For example, in the NEA Journal Flesch was accused of trying to ‘discredit American education.’ In November of 1955, the Journal published another attack on Flesch entitled ‘Why Can’t Rudy Read.’ It was apparent rather quickly that Flesch had hit a nerve. Although the NEA reacted to his criticism, the continued problems we have with illiteracy show that they did not learn from it. In 1981, Flesch published another book entitled Why John Still Can’t Read. He reported on the progress since his first book. There hasn’t been much. ‘Unfortunately my advice fell on deaf ears. With heart-breaking slowness, phonics-first crept into some 15 percent of our schools, but an estimated 85 percent of them still stick to old discredited look-and-say. The results of this mass miseducation have been disastrous.'”

~From Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning by Doug Wilson

 

Science Matters: A Review

Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy by Hazen and Trefil is an excellent one-volume overview of science. I will summarize the strengths and weaknesses and then elaborate each point further.

Strengths
Science Matters claims that:
1) Science rests on a foundation of philosophical assumptions.
2) The Second Law of Thermodynamics is bad news.
3) The Cosmos and living things are full of wonder and beauty.

Weaknesses
Science Matters:
4) Presents inconsistent statements about evolution.
5) Adopts the error of Immanuel Kant.
6) Propagates a popular misunderstanding about the Scope’s Monkey Trial.

Explanation

1) Hazen and Trefil (to whom I will refer as H&T throughout) wisely point out where science touches philosophy. Science is only possible if three philosophical assumptions are true:

A) Nature is uniform.
B) The human mind is orderly and can know the world.
C) There are such things as natural laws.

They also add an additional point D), that all phenomena can be explained by natural causes, but that is an assumption of materialist philosophy, one not necessary for science. Isaac Newton believed A-C, but would have rejected D: he was not only one of the most brilliant scientific minds who ever lived, but also a supernaturalist philosopher and Christian. We live in an extremely interesting time in history. Christians and modernist atheists hold A-C in common, but some postmodern atheists deny the ability of the human mind to know anything, which renders science impossible. Christians and modernist atheists have to team up to defend science against the philosophical attacks of postmodern atheists.

2) The Second Law of Thermodynamics is really bad news. H&T point out that increasing disorder in the universe leads to a “gloomy” view of the universe. This is true, and I wish more materialist philosophers would take the Second Law more seriously. Consider the following:

If,
A) The universe is a closed system, and
B) The Second Law of Thermodynamics is true,
Then
C) Entropy will destroy everything, including the greatest human achievements;
Therefore,
D) Work is ultimately meaningless.

The Second Law is really bad news if the universe is a closed system. If work has meaning, the universe can’t be a closed system. Christianity comes along and says, “Yes, that’s why Paul connects the resurrection of Jesus at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15 to work at the end of 1 Corinthians 15.” The resurrection is true; so work hard for the Lord, knowing your labor is not in vain. In the Gospels, Jesus says to dead Lazarus, “Lazarus, come out,” and Lazarus obeys. Christ’s authoritative word has the power to undo entropy. He is Lord of the Cosmos, and the Cosmos obeys.

3) From cosmic cataclysms to the complex inner workings of the cell, H&T are incredibly enjoyable to read.

4) Unfortunately, H&T present inconsistent statements about evolution. In the beginning of the book, H&T insist the fossil record is incredible evidence for evolution. Later in the book, H&T say that the fossil record is weak since there are so few finds and since one or a few bones are extrapolated to make a whole animal. Which is it, strong or weak?

5) H&T unfortunately buy into the error of Immanuel Kant, namely that of separating religion and reason. I hope to write a post about it someday. American and European cultures do not fully understand and have not repaired the damage that Kant has done to our thinking, and therefore to our lives.

6) Also unfortunately, H&T propagate a common misunderstanding about the conflict of creationism and evolutionism in America. They mention “legal battles,” undoubtedly a reference to the Scope’s Monkey Trial. The typical secular narrative about the Scope’s Monkey Trial (maybe you remember a guy named William Jennings Bryan from your U.S. history class) is that the Christians were the dumb, uneducated bad guys, and the evolutionists were the intelligent, educated good guys, but this narrative ignores a crucial fact: the textbook in question (Hunter’s A Civic Biology) had an argument for eugenics. Christians were absolutely right to oppose eugenics and its being taught in public schools. Modern secularists are embarrassed by the pro-eugenic views of older secularists and have done a face-lift on history to ignore the unpleasantries. (Darwin too wrote an argument for eugenics in The Descent of Man.) H&T propagate the view that the secularists were the good guys, when the reality was much more dirty. The secularists in the Scope’s Monkey Trial were arguing for something evil in the name of science.

Overall, a solid introduction to science as a whole and enjoyable to read.