Scientific Realism vs. Instrumentalism: A Primer

From the outset, it’s clear who lost the “name game” here.

The scientific realist posits that it is the job of scientific theories to explain the causes of observable phenomena in terms of whatever may cause them. He includes unobservable entities in his consideration, as he believes firstly of course that such things may exist, and secondly that science does not consist only in predicting similar phenomena by forming a “law,” but also about knowing what it is that is occurring in such a transaction between the objects of study. In other words, it’s about finding out the whole truth.

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“YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” (A Few Good Men, 1992)

Quite on the contrary is the position of the instrumentalist. However, the instrumentalist view does not go so far as the anti-realist, who says that there just plain aren’t any unobservable entities. Rather, the instrumentalist is agnostic as to whether or not there are such entities, and he avoids them in theorizing. He believes that it is enough for science merely to be able to predict the effects of observable events. Any statements made about things that cannot be sensed are regarded by him as almost altogether meaningless in themselves. Instead, they hold only an “instrumental” meaning for him; that is to say, he may see them as being useful for grounding a theory in. This might remind one of the pragmatism of William James, which said that “truth” is whatever is useful for thinking.

An example will help to illustrate these differences. The Higgs-Boson particle has not yet been directly observed, despite those successes in 2012 and 2013. The existence of this particle would provide an account for why certain particles have mass. The scientific realist is greatly interested in knowing whether or not there is such a particle, and it is these sorts of people who tend to want to build particle accelerators and telescopes. The instrumentalist is content with the “idea” of the Higgs-Boson, but he does not care if it really exists. It fills a gap that did not need to be filled. What the instrumentalist cares about is collecting enough data to understand that there is mass in certain kinds of things.

Instrumentalism is antithetical to the spirit of Christianity (and classical philosophy) as it bears on the motivation for natural scientific knowledge. We ought to want to know “what lies beneath,” because it reflects the beauty and wisdom of God… It is good for the soul to seek this kind of knowledge for its own sake, since that is one of the highest purposes of our existence. The “speciating principle” of man is his ability to reason and possess speculative knowledge, which therefore becomes primary in the determination of how he flourishes. Instrumentalism shucks this virtue and turns it into about gaining what is useful rather than what is good in itself.

 

Main image: The Very Large Array
By John Fowler – Flickr: VLA, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23385127

Can’t Spell “Cannabis” Without “Can I”

So guess what? Turns out some researchers in the Netherlands think more countries should legalize pot.

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Captain Obvious, of Hotels.com fame

For those who think flying to Amsterdam (or Colorado, etc.) to indulge in the herb is just fine and dandy, let’s do some thinkin’.

Principle 1: Creation is good.
Principle 2: Not all creatures are equally good.
Principle 3: We ought to avoid evil.
Principle 4: Rastafari is a false religion.

Humans are ontologically higher than rocks, plants, and animals. We can use them, even to their detriment, if they are beneficial enough to us. Jesus was not a vegetarian. And yes, Brother Carrot and Sister Lettuce are okay to kill, unless it is out of sheer disdain and spite for their existence as creatures of God.

But Uncle Bud is a little different, because when we harvest him, it’s usually for the sake of affecting our bodies in a way that suspends our intellect.

Eat-ay ad Thomam:

The sin of drunkenness, as stated in the foregoing Article, consists in the immoderate use and concupiscence of wine. Now this may happen to a man in three ways. First, so that he knows not the drink to be immoderate and intoxicating: and then drunkenness may be without sin, as stated above (Article 1). Secondly, so that he perceives the drink to be immoderate, but without knowing it to be intoxicating, and then drunkenness may involve a venial sin. Thirdly, it may happen that a man is well aware that the drink is immoderate and intoxicating, and yet he would rather be drunk than abstain from drink.

That’s from the Summa TheologicaII-II, Q. 150, art. 2. Wine stands here for any intoxicating substance… One might not know a substance to have intoxicating effects, and so there is no sin in such drunkenness (unless its use was immoderate for other reasons). But if one knows something to be potent, it is another story. But just how drunk is “drunk?”

[The third kind of man] is a drunkard properly speaking, because morals take their species not from things that occur accidentally and beside the intention, but from that which is directly intended. On this way drunkenness is a mortal sin, because then a man willingly and knowingly deprives himself of the use of reason, whereby he performs virtuous deeds and avoids sin, and thus he sins mortally by running the risk of falling into sin. For Ambrose says (De Patriarch. [De Abraham i.]): “We learn that we should shun drunkenness, which prevents us from avoiding grievous sins. For the things we avoid when sober, we unknowingly commit through drunkenness.” Therefore drunkenness, properly speaking, is a mortal sin.

So there is still a mystery… How intoxicated must one be before he “deprives himself of the use of reason?” Let’s remember a few things though before we shame the Angelic Doctor for being obscure. First, he expects a student to have read all the text which precedes this Article. That would give one a better idea of what he means. Second, the Summa really is just a beginner’s crash-course. It is not meant to be exhaustive. In some articles, this is more evident than in others. Third, it’s unlikely St. Thomas had much firsthand experience with drinking to provide us with more subtlety… When Albertus Magnus is your professor and Bonaventure lives on your hall, you’re inspired to “rise above the influence,” as it were.

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“Bonaventure Shows Thomas Aquinas the Crucifix,” Francisco Zurbaran, 1629

However, we know that some of the more austere saints occasionally indulged, such as Charles Borromeo and John Vianney. And of course, the Lord did as well, as He so famously pointed out in Matthew 11:19. Since potent substances will technically have some effect no matter how little is taken of them, we can say from this alone that it is not evil in itself to use intoxicating substances.

Then there is the principle of totality to keep in mind. Later in the same Question, Thomas alludes to this by saying a physician might tell one to use drink to induce vomiting – but since lukewarm water works too, that should be used instead. However, if it didn’t (and we hadn’t discovered Ipecac) then it would be fine. This is because the greater health of the body is worth the temporary loss of reason… That’s also why it’s not a sin to plan on going to sleep each night! And while there is violence done to the body and soul when, for instance, a gangrenous limb is removed, it is for the sake of the entire person. But this too should be moderated by wisdom, since not every ailment is worth doing violence to yourself. If you get occasional leg pain, that doesn’t mean you should cut off your leg.

So anyway, how drunk is drunk? How high is high? It is so difficult to say because of the problem in trying to quantify a quality. “It’s when you feel like… you know, drunk.”

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There he is again!

We won’t solve the issue of exactly where “the line” is today – maybe another post with some ¡HARDCORE SCIENCE! – but perhaps we can lay down some guideposts based on Thomas and basic research.

Certain drugs act far more quickly than others. THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) acts more quickly than alcohol, based on the popular conventions of consumption. That is a big deal.

Reason helps us to distinguish the true from the false. Once you have trouble doing that, it’s time to call it a day… If sober people around you start laughing at everything you say, it’s probably not because you’re witty and charming, it’s because you’re diminishing your material brain’s capability to interact with your immaterial intellect (AKA you’re becoming drunk). And so on.

If you’re starting to forget stuff that you shouldn’t forget, then that’s another sign your faculties are slipping. So put it down.

When you feel like doing something really dumb that you normally wouldn’t, STOP and don’t do that much again. Once you know that tequila makes your clothes fall off, then kiss it goodbye. It’s better to enter into life without a bottle of Patrón than into Gehenna with all you could ever drink. (And Tequila burns even without being on fire…)

If you can’t walk right and are slurring words, then your brain is shutting down. Same story.

So no hard answers here today, but basically the faster and stronger the drug, the less morally safe it is to use. AND, if one uses any substance for the pleasure of changing his mental state in a way that diminishes its capacity to execute its proper function, as distinct from some some other effect, this too is a red flag… We should not delight in an unnatural state!

All this would make the average consumption of pot pretty bad.

What makes art good?

I read a piece recently about a kid who left a pair of glasses on the ground at a modern art museum. Hilarity ensued.

Following our earlier post on the essence of art, now we can ask the question: what makes art good?

We can limit ourselves here to the question of what we’ll call “didactic art,” that is to say we will consider a work inasmuch as it is to be enjoyed for its own sake rather than some practical function like digging a hole or magnifying light… Obviously, in those cases, the measure is how well the job is accomplished.

In didactic art, there is not as clear a solution. One might immediately say that it is “a thing well made which is beautiful.” Okay, but that not only raises the thorny question of what beauty is but also seems to exclude many things that we have an impulse to call good art but would probably not call beautiful.

Francisco_de_Goya,_Saturno_devorando_a_su_hijo_(1819-1823)

If Francisco de Goya had meant for “Saturn Devouring his Son” to be “beautiful,” we would say he failed. But who would deny that this is good art?

Clearly then, the intention of the artist is important. It is important not only in the sense of craftsmanship – how closely what is in the mind is actually achieved in reality by the work done – but also in the sense of purpose. What is the artist trying to effect in his audience, and how is he trying to accomplish it? What point is he trying to get across to people, how is he trying to make them feel, what is he trying to get them to think? These questions seem pertinent.

Here’s a radical thought… Not all points should be made, not all feelings effected, and so on. If the point is not something true, or if the idea is to make one hate something good – or even to feel a disordered passion, like lust – perhaps it can’t be good didactic art. Alternatively, if there is no message, or the message is so obscure as to be comical (as highlighted so well by the glasses prank), or the message is obscured by the work evoking some distracting feeling (like sensuality), perhaps it can’t be good didactic art. The intention must be a worthy one, and how well that worthy intention is communicated through craftsmanship would be the measure. Here is a familiar painting we might consider:

Conversion_on_the_Way_to_Damascus-Caravaggio_(c.1600-1)

“Conversion on the Way to Damascus” by Caravaggio was a wildly controversial work upon its release. It was thought sacrilegious that the hind end of a horse would occupy the main focus of such a scene! One could see why that might have had an adverse effect on people, especially when it is coupled with Caravaggio’s scandalous life, a life that even included having the pope give him a death sentence (which he evaded by running off to Malta and then bribing a relative of the Holy Father with several paintings).

This work has become greatly admired though, to the point where most people think that the Scriptures actually say Paul fell of a horse on the way to Damascus! But is the shift in public opinion due to a better appreciation of a righteous intention or a deadening of spiritual sensitivities?

Of course there is no doubt that it is well crafted: the chiascurro, the perspective, the expressions – all wonderful. But was Caravaggio making fun of St. Paul? We can only wonder at his intention, but if it was evil and we get only good out of the work anyway, it is by accident rather than by art.

Just some food for thought.

So maybe didactic art, too, is about “how well the job gets done,” but the job is done in the audience themselves. And maybe good art is more about truth and goodness than beauty… But we’ll keep beauty in our tagline anyway.

 

Main image: By cea + from The Netherlands – Ecce Home, Before, After, and After the After, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48015408
Second image: “Saturn Devouring his Son,” Francisco de Goya, 1819-1823
Third image: “Conversion on the Way to Damascus,” Caravaggio, 1601