Saturday, June 12, 2010

Mirror Neurons

Rene Girard has a slightly more nuanced and anthropologically fascinating explanation of mirror neurons, but one that is in most respects entirely compatible with this interesting -- and extremely succinct -- explanation.

Thanks to my friend Philip Hunt


Athos said...

The only thing I would add to his presentation is that, besides the empathy created by mirror neurons (offset by receptors in the skin), we actually do share electrons all the time with persons around us at the atomic level.

I suppose Sartre would have a rather difficult time with all this!

Bentang said...

Thank you, Gil. This is indeed fascinating. Research into mirror neurons promises to confirm everything that Girard and his great writers (Cervantes, Shakespeare...) intuited about mimesis. As Ramachandran points out, the humanities are now finally coming together with the sciences—an event of monumental importance in human history. The last walls are being breached with every new discovery in the sciences of the brain, genes, and evolution. Not just human empathy but every other mental and emotional state is now understood to be biological. The mental world is grounded in the physical. This new understanding will have vast implications for literary studies, anthropology, and religion, and so I will be interested to see how it plays out among Girardians, who may or may not have reason to welcome it. I am not up to speed on their reactions to meme theory or mirror neuron research and will appreciate your sharing anything you come across.

Gordon said...


“The mental world is grounded in the physical. This new understanding…”

I'm curious about why and how you think that's new: Thomas Aquinas, for example, said “That which is in our intellect must have first been in our senses” (De Veritate, q2).

matt tavares said...

Ramachandran does amazing work. In college we studied his research on phantom limb patients. He had one guy in particular complain of pain in his phantom limb when shaving his face, of all things. It turned out the old somatosensory cortex area for the hand is located near the face, and the face took over the real estate the hand wasn't using. Pretty fascinating.

Also, on a note more closely related to the theme of your post, this reminds me of a more sophisticated view than we're used to of babbling by babies. Psychologists have pointed out from our birth we're continuously trying to become like our human parents through imitation. The baby will continue to babble until it receives affirmation that its tries are correct. It's as if we're trying to calibrate our mirror neurons, or our empathy right off the bat. If this idea seems a bit too loose or we can't clearly see it in our fellow human beings, we can look at Dr. Cynthia Breazeal's work at MIT. She puts this model to the test in order to create some very compelling robots. She is very youtube available. This whole thing makes it blatantly obvious of how we must be careful about what we affirm in our children since they're constantly looking for it.

Bentang said...


From what I have been able to gather, Thomas Aquinas believed that humans have an innate capacity to know many things without divine intervention, but our knowledge of “truth” requires supernatural revelation (through faith). I’m not sure what Thomas meant by “intellect” in the quotation you supplied, but I think it is clear that he believed in a spiritual realm that is separate from the material one. The concept of revelation was central to Thomas’s theology, and such a concept requires there to be some intellectual or mental content that is not grounded in the physical world. This content would come from the Holy Spirit through the teachings of the prophets and the church magisterium, and presumably, it would have come to them directly, in some form that was not mediated by the senses.

Nor was my use of “the mental world” very clear, however. We still commonly use the word “mind” to mean something that somehow transcends the brain, as if it (the mind) were some immaterial essence floating around in the ether. Scientists who study the brain these days, however, often describe the mind as “something the brain does.” ...its output, I guess—thoughts, feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and all the rest.

It’s true that there’s nothing new about the materialist conception of reality. What’s new is the sheer quantity of experimental verification supporting it, and this is throwing our traditional understanding of human nature into a tailspin. This is an exciting time for the humanities and the social sciences, which are having to “pull up,” so to speak. Dualism of mind (or soul) and body, spirit and matter, biology and culture, nature and society—all these must now be re-examined.

Many theological claims are now also challenged by these findings. Our moral sense is now understood to be part of the standard equipment of the mind, dating back at least 100,000 years to what Ramachandran (in Gil’s video) calls the “great leap forward”—the evolutionary development of mirror neurons that make empathy possible. This was around 97,000 years before the Torah was written. Among the implications of this: It is no longer possible to credibly claim that the moral sense comes only through religious faith and revelation, or that secularists lack such a moral sense, or that secularism is inherently nihilistic, etc. Only certain brain-damaged individuals lack a moral sense. Obviously, world religions have not always championed empathy; they have simply tracked their adherents’ ambivalence about it. Some religions, like Christianity, appear to have done a much better job than others in widening the circle of our concern for others, but we have also seen them draw back at times into tribalism, sectarianism, and other forms of exclusionary thinking. The record is mixed, with the result that religious teachings are now suspect, and many of us look elsewhere for an understanding of our moral nature. Secular ethics, evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience are providing some very robust answers.

Gordon said...

Doughlas (Bentang),

In fact, Thomas does think “many things” are knowable without divine intervention. He’s a realist; he thinks the world knowable. This is the mindset that fed the birth of modern science throughout the monasteries of Europe during his time. But when you say “truth” requires “supernatural revelation (through faith)” I think we need to back up. If by “truth” you mean the things of God, yes, God is not an object of inquiry like sea lions or tidal pools. The point of this, for Thomas and me as well, is that God can only be known if he makes himself known. But this is not a problem created by Him dwelling in a spiritual realm — as opposed to our “physical world.” The physical and spiritual realms are both created. God is not a tourist from the spiritual side, nor is he trying to entice us out of the physical to a spiritual realm. Thomas would say that man has both a spiritual (soul) and physical (body) nature, but that man only exists in the unity the two. One might describe man using the vocabulary of soul or the language of bodies and time, but you would simply be describing the same reality from different sides.

True or false, Christianity is a public event. The definitive revelation of Christianity is the person of Jesus. There’s no body of esoteric spiritual revelations (“not mediated by the senses”) ensconced in the Magisterium. In fact, the earliest enemy of the Church was Gnosticism. And they would fully embrace your description of a separate “direct revelation” above the common “physical” and “sense driven” knowledge of the hoi polloi. In that sense, Christians are the hoi polloi. It was probably with an early form of this Gnostic error in mind that John began his letter thus: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands….” (John 1:1)

You maintain that the empathetic function of mirror neurons leads to this conclusion: “It is no longer possible to credibly claim that the moral sense comes only through religious faith and revelation, or that secularists lack such a moral sense, or that secularism is inherently nihilistic, etc.”

Here’s where the confusion can come. Many Protestants have abandoned the classic Christian (& Jewish) tradition of natural law. It’s a long story. Probably the fault of Nominalism. To the point, the traditional Christian and Jewish position is that the “moral sense” or “conscience” or “natural law” persists recognizably in every culture and across time, with or without religious faith or revelation. If you are now affirming this, you just came down on the side of the Catholic Church in the culture wars (don’t worry, that doesn’t put you on a mailing list).

Bentang said...


In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas said that natural law needed to be supplemented by revealed divine law, but my question for anyone who knows Thomas is, “Where does natural law originate?” Maybe he does not address this question because he regards the answer as obvious. After all, Thomas believes in the creation myth, so natural law would necessarily have divine origins. This brings us back to the supernatural underpinnings of natural law theology, does it not?

Modern science is telling us that we have an innate moral sense that developed through natural evolutionary processes. There is no evidence of supernatural interventions in any of this, and no need for them. This is the difference between these new discoveries and the old concept of natural law, and it is a critical difference.

God is not an object of inquiry...

Your idea that God is not an object of inquiry is consistent with my own understanding of the sacred as that which must not be approached, touched, questioned, or in some cases even named. “God can only be known if he makes himself known,” as you put it. This stance is not only passive and submissive, but it also denotes reverence and mystification of the sort that religions need if they are to maintain their aura of authority. God forbid that we should ask questions about Him.

You may regard my remarks as a conversation stopper. In discussing religion with believers, I have always come to this line that I sense I should not cross lest I give offense. The reaction to my crossing it ranges from polite withdrawal to charges of blasphemy. In either case, I become the outsider and the aggressor, and the door closes.

Secular humanists are perceived by some Christians as “confrontational” precisely because we do push against the doors of this inner sanctum of “private” religious experience. However, if we treat God as an object of inquiry, it is because theists constantly make claims about His nature, often with implications for social and political policy. When you write that “God is not trying to entice us out of the physical to a spiritual realm,” you are making such a claim, prefaced, of course, by the warning that God is not an object of inquiry like sea lions or tidal pools, so challenges to your claim may not be welcome (by God, of course).

How do you know such things about God? Is there in fact no “body of esoteric spiritual revelations ensconced in the Magisterium?” Doesn’t the Pope have authority to convey the will of God to the laity, and isn’t he considered infallible when speaking ex cathedra? If the definitive revelation of Christianity is the person of Jesus, then what is the basis for the Church’s teachings about homosexuality and contraception, neither of which Jesus ever mentioned? The word “definitive” before “revelation,” of course, leaves some wiggle room. Aren’t there other layers of revelation? And isn’t one of them the Pope?

You may remember my earlier claim that the three shared features of Christianity and Communism were (1) suspension of critical thinking, (2) submission to authority, and (3) totalitarian control over every aspect of life. Leaving aside the third one for now, I would like to point out that your view of God as “not an object of inquiry” and as “one who can only be known if he makes himself known” perfectly validates the first part of my claim. As for the second part (submission to authority), all available evidence leads me to conclude that the Pope is generally regarded, by Catholics, to speak with an authority conferred on him by God, and that this authority has not traditionally been questioned for that reason. (The Pope does not, in fact, give interviews and, as this recent crisis demonstrates, he is held to a “different” standard than CEOS and Presidents, so he is obviously thought to enjoy a special relationship with the Divine.) I would regard the current questioning of his authority to be a sign of health in the Church, though it can only lead to a further unraveling of the church as an institution.

Bentang said...

For the Christian alternative to what Girard once called the "primitive sacred" is a combination of what Philip Rieff calls fresh new interdicts -- a vibrant system of moral constraints -- and what catholic Christianity calls the sacramental life of the Church.
Without such moral constraints (themselves requiring religious underpinning) and the sacramental instantiation of these constraints into the lived experience of those being civilized by them -- without that, secularism and nihilism follow as night follows day.

Gil Bailie, “Religion is the Key to History,” posted on this site 3/12/10

Gordon, Gil’s remark (above)) was still present in my thoughts when I wrote (in this thread) that claims about secularists lacking a moral sense were invalidated by recent discoveries in neuroscience. Unless I have misunderstood Gil, he seems to be saying that secularism is somehow immoral (he pairs it with nihilism), and that it can only be avoided by accepting “fresh new interdicts”—a system of moral constraints—from catholic Christianity.

Thomas, on the other hand, posits a moral sense that is completely independent of religion or revelation. (In your words, it “persists recognizably in every culture and across time, with or without religious faith or revelation.”)

Are these two views in conflict? If not, how are they different? But if they do conflict, does one of them represent the views of the Church?

You’ve written, The physical and spiritual realms are both created...Thomas would say that man has both a spiritual (soul) and physical (body) nature, but that man only exists in the unity of the two.

Isn’t this the very dualism that modern science no longer finds tenable? You are careful to point out that these two natures are unified in man, but that doesn’t mean that they are indistinguishable, does it? The sense in which you are using “unified” seems rather mystical and hardly compares to a claim about two physical systems (e.g., circulation and respiration) working in a “unified” way.

The reason that modern science rejects dualism is that no evidence of a soul has been found, and there are no effects that might only be explained by the presence of a soul. Everything about man is ultimately understandable without such a notion. Science, following William of Ockham’s rule, does not multiply explanations needlessly.

Gordon said...


We keep coming back to this: “…the three shared features of Christianity and Communism were (1) suspension of critical thinking, (2) submission to authority, and (3) totalitarian control over every aspect of life.”

Yet on Anthropogenic Climate Change you said (1) the argument is over, (2) the conclusions of the IPPC are authoritative and we must submit to their findings, and (3) it’s critical we stop our “denial” and change every aspect of our lives to avert an immanent crisis.

I don’t mean this as a gotcha. This is just to point out that the tension between what you think you know and openness to being proved wrong or finding a more adequate truth is universal and a good thing. Absolute skepticism is as mindless and impossible to consistently embrace as absolute dogmatism. The question, ultimately, is whether the those things we take as true, hence authoritative, open up the world for more inquiry or shut it down. Whether they further illumine the other things we know about the world, or force us to explain them away to avoid contradictions.

When I said that “God is not an object of inquiry” you took that as validating point for this: “ This stance is not only passive and submissive, but it also denotes reverence and mystification of the sort that religions need if they are to maintain their aura of authority. God forbid that we should ask questions about Him.”

Doughlas, all history and most observational science, for example, is “passive and submissive” in that it can only receive the evidence that object of study has provided. Astronomers observe the light of stars that have been traveling for billions of years; historians sort through whatever residue was left from past events. They can’t control the object of their inquiry. They can’t touch it, hold it, or manipulate it. How much more when the object of our inquiry is the very ground of our existence?

Perhaps I need to clarify: God as a Subject cannot be known unless He makes Himself known, unless He reveals Himself. His Revelation, or the record of it, is an object of inquiry, and this inquiry (theology itself) does not in itself inspire reverence. Matter of fact, theological arguments are relentless and intense because we revere God Himself, and thus submit our theological constructs to rigorous debate. As a matter of fact, the Magisterium exists largely to keep the ongoing inquiry on track. It exists because the questioning never ends. Otherwise there would be no Doctrinal Development. What you take as Popes introducing “mystical revelations” is nothing but new ideas teased out of ongoing questions.
In other words, God forbid we shouldn’t ask questions about him.

Gordon said...


You said, "The Pope does not, in fact, give interviews and, as this recent crisis demonstrates, he is held to a “different” standard than CEOS and Presidents, so he is obviously thought to enjoy a special relationship with the Divine."

Benedict published three volumes of interviews, “The Ratzinger Report” (Ignatius 1985) with Vittorio Miessori, and “Salt of the Earth: the Church at the end of the Millennium” (Ignatius 1997) and “God and the World” (Ignatius 2002) with Peter Seewald (an agnostic who converted by the second volume). Perhaps even better is his exchange with the distinguished atheist philosopher Jurgen Habermas called “Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion” (Ignatius 2007). Please note that only one of these was an exchange with another Catholic (it doesn’t count when the an agnostic converts half-way through)

Bentang said...

Gordon, I didn’t recognize my opinions about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in your caricatures of them. I confirmed that they were not quotations by searching on my archived Word copies of our conversations. Phrases like “the argument is over,” “we must submit,” and “change every aspect of our lives” did not turn up.

The argument about AGW is obviously not “over” among the general public in this country, where only 57% of survey respondents in 2009 said they believed there was solid evidence that the earth’s average temperature is warming. The “manufactured doubt” industry, led by the same folks who for years succeeded in sowing doubt about the risks of smoking tobacco , has proved once again how easily public opinion can be manipulated. The public relations firm Hill and Knowlton was at first so successful that they were hired by asbestos companies to throw doubts on the links between asbestos and lung diseases. “Product defense” became a niche industry with the creation of “think tanks” like the George C. Marshall Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Heartland Institution, etc., among whose clients were manufacturers of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), lead, vinyl chloride, beryllium, and other toxic substances. These same think tanks were then hired by the fossil fuel industry starting in 1988 (following NASA scientist James Hansen’s testimony before Congress about AGW). Their brief was to discredit peer-reviewed science that supported AGW. They have had considerable success, as the poll numbers show. This is because the general public is ill-equipped to assess the truth-value of scientific (and pseudo-scientific) claims and would prefer not to acknowledge the consequences of our reliance on fossil fuels over the past two centuries. It’s just human nature to resist calls for change when short-term comforts are at stake.

Meanwhile, the scientific consensus is now more robust than ever. The “hacked e-mail” incident in East Anglia did nothing to change that. The IPCC found no evidence of wrong-doing, and the UK’s House of Commons concurred with that finding following its own thorough investigation. Even if the charges against the East Anglia scientists were true, the incident would still have about the same relative importance as a typographical error in a footnote of a scientific journal. Put simply, the quantity of evidence supporting AGW is now overwhelming and the consensus among climate scientists is extremely strong.

This is not to suggest that “we must submit” to their conclusions. On the contrary, these conclusions, because they are scientific, are still “falsifiable.” They could at any time be falsified by new data invalidating existing data. But no such data has appeared. All that the manufactured doubt industry can do is deploy their bag of tricks (e.g., cherry-picking data) to mislead the public. You will find a bulleted list of these tricks in this article by Jeff Masters.

Though I haven’t read it, David Michaels’ 2008 book, Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, appears to be a good resource on the manufactured doubt industry.

(More to follow...)

Bentang said...

Gordon, a couple of minor points:
The reason we keep coming back to my “three shared features of Christianity and Communism” comment is that I am trying to turn it into a viral meme.
When I said the Pope doesn’t give interviews, I was referring to the office, not the man. The interviews you cite occurred before 2005 when Joseph Ratzinger became pope. Even the one published in 2007 by Ignatius Press had actually occurred about eight years earlier. It seems unlikely that the Pope (as Pope) would ever submit to an interview by the press, as presidents and CEOs often do. Could this be because he considers himself accountable only to God in matters of faith and doctrine? My larger point was that the Pope, for most Catholics, represents one of those layers of authority that undergird faith in particular doctrines. St. Thomas may be another, as are Jesus and St. Paul, but there seems to be a complex interlocking system where these different layers attempt to mesh in the minds of the faithful.

Bentang said...

Gordon, there is certainly a sense in which I would consider IPCC’s findings about AGW to be “authoritative.” I admit to having a certain amount of “faith” in them. There isn’t much nuance built into such words, so clarifications are in order.

Science, unlike most religious faith, doesn’t promise certainty or even necessarily aspire to it. The best way to make your fame in the world of science is to disprove an established theory. The process of critical inquiry leads to more robust theories; they become robust when no empirical evidence is any longer found to falsify them. However, all scientific theories are, in principle, falsifiable. Newton’s theory of gravitation could be falsified if objects stopped falling to the ground and the earth suddenly left its orbit and spun off into space. If a theory is not falsifiable, then it is not scientific.

Beliefs about God, however, are not falsifiable. There is no way to falsify a belief about something that cannot be detected or measured. It is impossible to falsify any belief about supernatural agents, no matter how bizarre and improbable these agents may be. If you claim there is a ghost hovering over me, there is no way I can disprove that.

When you consider the total lack of any scientific evidence for the existence of such agents, then belief in them comes down to faith—and lots of it. This is Faith with a capital “F,” and its particular content is usually determined by the believer’s environment. Children raised in Christian homes are unlikely to be Muslims, and vice versa. Their faith is sometimes highly resistant to evidence or reason.

This kind of faith is not like my “faith” that the sun will appear tomorrow morning on the horizon. There is a huge difference of both degree and kind. Our earth has been rotating on its axis for billions of years, and there is an extremely high probability that it will do so tomorrow as well. So my faith about this is miniscule compared to faith in supernatural agents.

My faith in the jet plane that I am boarding is somewhat larger, but it is still not in a league with faith in supernatural agents.

And then we come to the IPCC’s findings on AGW. The probability of their being correct is very high, and the amount of faith needed to believe them is correspondingly small. The IPCC speaks for the national academies of the G8 nations, and its findings are endorsed by every major scientific body that is in any way connected with climate science, including NASA, NOAA, AAAS, NAS, AGU, etc. (Sorry for the abbreviations. Space is tight.) Their research is available for anyone to challenge and has been repeatedly challenged.

So yes, I consider the IPCC about as “authoritative” as any organization can be on the subject of climate change. But my belief is based on a very high relative probability that their conclusions are correct.

Thus, I am not an absolute skeptic, and I really doubt that any functioning individual can be. However, I am skeptical about claims concerning the supernatural, just as I am skeptical about magic tricks and faith healing. A very high level of faith is required for belief in such claims.

Scientists are hardly “passive” or “submissive” in the sense that believers in papal authority or the will of Allah are. Your analogy confuses sensation with evaluation. While it may be true that our sense organs “passively” receive certain data from the environment, our way of evaluating that data varies from individual to individual and may be shaped by particular notions (self-replicating memes, perhaps?) that we absorb from our culture. We “learn” certain higher-level habits of evaluation and may at times also be encouraged in our innocent credulities.

Bentang said...

Finally, Gordon, I would still be very interested to hear how you can make claims about what God wants or doesn’t want. (“God forbid that we shouldn’t ask questions about him,” you write.) We constantly hear claims about God from preachers and theologians (“God wants you to be rich,” “God hates homosexuals,” etc.) What if someone in your theological circle challenges your claim? How would you defend it? What is your basis for knowing anything whatsoever about God or for making any claims about his nature? Is it just a process of consensus-building? Since you don’t use measurable data, do you just go with intuitions? Without objective standards for evaluating truth claims, how do you ever agree about anything? I would expect mimetic forces to be rife in such a world of discourse.

Gordon said...


In short, I don’t think my characterization of your argument was unfair, nor as insulting as you seem to take it. Again, I was simply pointing out the tension created over intellectual openness when we think accepting the truth of something is an urgent matter.

I do recommend a recent paper on the subject. It was published by the Institute for Law and Economics at the University of Pennsylvania: GLOBAL WARMING ADVOCACY SCIENCE: A CROSS EXAMINATION. This isn’t the Marshall Institute (which I’d never heard of before you mentioned it the last time), it’s Penn. The paper is directly authored by the director of The Program on Law, Environment and Economy, Robert G. Fuller — but it appears to be a collaborative project under his direction. Just Google some of those phrases and you can get the paper. Only 82 pages. It’s really an application of the rules of rational argument to both sides of the debate. I suspect it couldn’t have been published in the academic environment of three years ago — that’s why I suspect you’ll see the academic establishment discreetly backing away from strong AGW advocacy.

Here’s the final paragraph:

“As things now stand, the advocates representing the establishment
climate science story broadcast (usually with color diagrams) the predictions of climate
models as if they were the results of experiments – actual evidence. Alongside these
multi-colored multi-century model-simulated time series come stories, anecdotes, and
photos – such as the iconic stranded polar bear -- dramatically illustrating climate change
today. On this rhetorical strategy, the models are to be taken on faith, and the stories and
photos as evidence of the models’ truth. Policy carrying potential costs in the trillions of
dollars ought not to be based on stories and photos confirming faith in models, but rather
on precise and replicable testing of the models’ predictions against solid observational

To this I have nothing to add. I’d love to hear your reaction to the paper though.

Gordon said...


You throw around the Karl Popper’s old “falsifiability” criterion. How would one go about falsifying the Falsifiability Theory?

According to you’re definition, “a theory that is not falsifiable is not scientific.” If it isn’t science what is it?

Gordon said...


“Beliefs about God, however, are not falsifiable. There is no way to falsify a belief about something that cannot be detected or measured. It is impossible to falsify any belief about supernatural agents, no matter how bizarre and improbable these agents may be. If you claim there is a ghost hovering over me, there is no way I can disprove that.”

Then your belief that there is no God is not falsifiable. You did know Popper’s theory cuts both ways?

Even though Falsifiability is a limited tool, Christianity has always asserted at least one major falsifiability criterion, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, “If Christ is not risen, this whole thing is a crock.” Do you have a falsifiability criterion attached to your “world view,” that is, a set of conditions that if met, would disprove your assertions about Christianity? If not, then your assertions about it are, like the claim that a ghost hovers over your head, beyond evidence. They certainly aren’t scientific.

BTW, this would only make sense if it was a criterion internal to the logic of the Christian faith you don’t believe. Saying “I’ll believe it when I win the lottery” or “when God sends flying monkeys out of my butt” would be absurd, and Popper would agree, the criterion must fit the object. Melting in the hot sun falsifies the proposition that “ice cream doesn’t melt,” a case of the runs from eating too much ice cream does not. Problem is, in order to know what would falsify Christianity (the Christianity of Gil, Girard, Benedict, not Jimmy Swaggart), you would have to understand it and face it on it's own terms.

Gordon said...


As to the “criteria” for claims about God or what God wants: We rely on Scripture and Tradition. When in doubt we throw entrails on a fire. If the fire is red, the answer is yes. If it’s yellow, the answer is no.

You lost me with “God wants us to be rich” and “God hates homosexuals.” Which theologian said these? Please.

Bentang said...


I was struck by your comment, “the Magisterium exists largely to keep the ongoing inquiry on track.” (You were talking about theological inquiry.) You appear to see their role as one of kindly mentoring and guidance. But isn’t it also rather paternalistic? Do adult Catholics need to be kept on track in their discussions about God? What if you go off the rails?

In a recent statement, “Setting the Record Straight,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops accused those who disputed their reading of the health-care bill of causing “confusion and a wound to Catholic unity.” Among those who stand accused are the Catholic magazine Commonweal and the Catholic Health Association.
Here’s what Commonweal editors had to say in reply (6/18/10):

Catholics seeking full and equal participation in American democracy have long battled the canard that they cannot think for themselves, and instead take political orders from their prelates and from the Vatican. Historically, however, American Catholics have shown a great degree of political independence from the hierarchy—and from political parties themselves—and there is little reason to think that will change. If the authors of “Setting the Record Straight” wish to seize a “new opportunity for the Catholic community to come together in defense of human life,” they can start by not questioning the motives of those Catholics who disagree with them about how best to interpret the provisions of the new health-insurance law. On questions such as this, disagreement should not be understood as a threat to unity, but as a sign of the church’s intellectual vitality.

And another question: What did you mean when you wrote, “I was simply pointing out the tension created over intellectual openness when we think accepting the truth of something is an urgent matter.”? Were you only thinking of the urgency of action on climate change? I just wanted to make sure I had understood you.

You asked, “How would one go about falsifying the Falsifiability Theory?” Answer: You could show that it is illogical or that it does not hold up in practice.

And you asked, “If it [a theory that is not falsifiable] isn’t science, what is it?” Answer: It could be folk science, folk wisdom, religion, pseudo-science, and a long list of other things that are not scientific. The word “science” has a meaning; we’re not post-modernist deconstructionists here.

Thanks for the recommendation concerning the paper from the University of Pennsylvania. I’ll try to get to it soon.

Bentang said...

Gordon, what you say about Popper’s theory cutting both ways is absolutely correct, and that is why I never claim that God does not exist. My claim is that there is no evidence that he does.

Your question about my own falsifiability criteria was too broad. Which of my assertions about Christianity are you referring to?

But to help you out, I’ll make an assertion about the resurrection. Presumably, the resurrection is a foundational event for Christians. My assertion is that bodily resurrections (of the dead) do not occur in the real world and that the resurrection of Jesus therefore did not happen. All that it would take to falsify this proposition is an authentic living resurrected body that could be medically verified to have fully died (as Jesus was said to have done) before being resurrected. This would tell us that resurrections are indeed possible and that Jesus might have experienced one.

This leads to my assertion that Christians routinely suspend critical thinking about such matters (the virgin birth, transubstantiation, the creation story, etc.) and rely solely on the authority of scripture. In some cases, their reliance is on other sources of authority (the Pope, the catechism, St. Thomas, etc.). What would it take to falsify this proposition? You could show me a large mass of Christians—say, a major world Christian denomination—that both rejects supernaturalism and actively challenges the authority of its foundational scriptures and its magisterium.

So, I hope I have satisfied all of Popper’s criteria.

Thanks for your honesty about throwing entrails on a fire. I had a feeling it was something like that.

My two quotations were from preachers, not theologians. Joel Osteen says “God wants us to be rich,” and Fred Phelps says “God hates homosexuals.” But again, what is the difference between your claims about God and theirs? How can you dismiss them so easily? Maybe they are right? Are there any objective criteria by which you can determine what God wants?

Gordon said...


My central point about Falsifiability Theory is that it rests other criteria, such as, quoting you, “holding up in practice.” I think it’s great tool and should be used wherever it can be. The problem is over extending it. Even in hard science there are theories we don’t have the technology to falsify. Like most historical assertions, they are falsifiable only in theory. Where you can’t falsify you just lean more on whether or it makes the best sense of all the relevant data. I think we understand each other on that. I’ll also concede that if I still thought Materialism made the best sense of everything I know about the world, I’d be using Falsifiability no differently than you do. I’m just pushing you to stay open-minded. It’s my job, much as you’ve made me rethink AGW several times.

Which gets to your other question about what I meant when I referred to the “tension” around staying open-minded when the subject seems to require urgent action. Yes, I meant it broadly. Truth is, we’re always acting with incomplete knowledge. It creates tension now; in the context of eternity, it’s the promise of always having more to learn and experience.

“I was struck by your comment, “the Magisterium exists largely to keep the ongoing inquiry on track.” (You were talking about theological inquiry.) You appear to see their role as one of kindly mentoring and guidance. But isn’t it also rather paternalistic? Do adult Catholics need to be kept on track in their discussions about God? What if you go off the rails?”

That which is mentoring and guiding can also be at times paternalistic — much like your parents. In this case I was referring to the narrow role of the Church’s Magisterium in keeping theologians from going “off the rails.” This is not a negative, overbearing role; theologians are supposed to be pushing established ideas in new directions, and addressing new questions that will tease out unforeseen implications. Around 70 years ago Henri de Lubac pushed the edge of the envelope in addressing the relationship between Nature and Grace in startling way, and his superiors asked him to keep his work to himself for a while, to pray over the wisdom of it, and to give the Church time to think and pray over whether he was right. The press framed this in it’s traditional cliches: the people who brought you the inquisition have silenced another free thinking priest. Of course, the fruit of this “silent” period, which de Lubac gladly accepted, was the Church’s embrace of his work. He became a central influence on Vatican II.
Some things don’t need as much prayer and deliberation. Taking innocent life is a fundamental evil. Commonweal wants to make it a nuance (Oh, it’s about healthcare, not abortion!), but more importantly wants to call their position Catholic. When the Bishops say that Commonweal’s (or some faculty at Georgetown) position isn’t compatible with Catholic Church, they’re taking the same position they did toward Father Feeney for claiming that Catholics alone go to heaven, or toward certain laymen in Louisiana who supported segregation. Does Commonweal think support of segregation was just “showing political independence from the hierarchy”

The point is that this oversight role assumes and celebrates the idea that truth is dynamic. It puts current thought in dialogue with everything from scripture to Thomas to Newman to Maximus the Confessor. It intends to deepen and refine thought rather than suppress it. And, by the way, they expect to be wrong at times and pray that God will show them wisdom.

Gordon said...


I was tired when I swept away your quotes from Osteen and Phelps. Maybe it reminded me too much of my Protestant impasse. Many years ago I was studying Philosophy and Theology in grad school (one with a gaggle of Barth scholars) when I realized I had to leave my Presbyterian Church(as someone who literally kicked himself off an abortion table — my way of reminding my mother I was human — I had issues with the PC making it a sacrament). I had to leave and find another church. But which one? How do I decide? Am I gonna become a Swedish Lutheran because they have the truth that no one else does? Or maybe the Mennonites are the one out of 30,000. I didn’t grow up in any church, but I’d been involved with enough Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, ad infinitum, to know the gig: each one of them explained half the bible, and explained away the other half. Their differences depended on which half they explained away.

What about religious experience as a source of truth? That would work fine if it didn’t seem that God was telling us all contradictory things. Hell, “God” told my biological grandparents to make their daughter abort her bastard “fetus,” and when she backed out “he assured them with his gentle voice” that I would die in the womb. They even had a prayer meeting to share this with other members of Life Tabernacle (a church they built… entirely without irony). I knew in theory that God could speak. But in reality, if a twenty-foot shining angel appeared to tell me the truth about the world, I would have nodded approvingly to whatever he said, then the next day I’d swear off whatever tequila that had led to the hallucination. As far as I was concerned, the brain was capable of infinite self-delusion. That’s how skeptical I was of any “religious experience” as a pointer to belief.

So I took what ended up a permanent break from school. At this point I was a Barthian in theory, a Nietzschean in sentiment, and Dionysian in lifestyle. That went on until I got a viral infection that put me in bed for three years, just waiting to die.

Then something unexpected happened… (continued)

Gordon said...


How did I get past my skepticism about really knowing anything about God? Not by argument. I simply had a dream on the night my dog, the last joy in my fleeting life, suddenly died (She was given to me on the condition that her would be Monica). It was a just like any other dream in the same way that lightening is just like the static on your sweater. In the dream I was told to begin a “long journey” that would start in New York. I wasn’t sure there was a God, but if He was there I knew he was addressing me and this was the pivotal moment of my life. So I put everything I owned in my car and left for New York. The virus went into remission.

On the second anniversary of the first dream I had a second dream, showing me a room overlooking a courtyard in California. I saw some things that didn’t make sense to me but a thick Irish fellow named Hawe assured me I would understand at the end of my journey. I moved to California and the second dream haunted me literally for a decade. I expected to find the room in connection with my work, not church. God no. I never looked for Hawe directly, but I assumed I’d meet him when I found the room overlooking a courtyard.

On the twelfth anniversary of first dream, January 6, I realized the day had another name, Epiphany. Within a few hours I came to think for the first time that this whole thing was leading me to the Catholic Church (that thing I “didn’t understand” was three men pointing at a huge stone saying “Peter, Petra, Rock.” Only someone well schooled modern Protestant Theology could miss something this obvious). Within a few days I found myself in that room overlooking a courtyard (I recognized the outside of the building, so before I entered I drew a map where the hallway and room were in my dream. It turned out to be a perfect diagram). Then I turned to exit through the door where I met Hawe in the dream. But he wasn’t standing on the other side of the door. His picture was: Patrick Hawe, born in Ireland, founding priest of St. Monica’s, Died 1923.

There are no odds for this.

Needless to say there’s more to it, I’m just sparing you the 300 page version. But what happened happened. The point is simply that no hermeneutic or theory of knowledge gets us anywhere unless it’s real. If it’s real you’ve never been alone. If it’s real you’re on a journey already, and the map will only start to make sense from traveling the roads. Jesus himself warned that there would be Fred Phelps’s and Joel Osteens. He also picked out a guy and said “you are Peter (rock) and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome you.” He added to that, “you will betray me.” So there you go, we were promised wolves in sheep’s clothing and shepherds with fleas. He keeps his promises. Especially the one about always being with us, even to the end of the age.

Bentang said...

Thanks, Gordon. You've answered all my questions, and I now understand much more about the Catholic faith than before.